9 – Turandot as the Symbol of the New Silk Road

At the evening gala during the Xiamen BRICS summit, a quartet of Chinese singers has sung the famous air of Puccini’s Turandot “Domani Vincerò“. Turandot is, under several points of view, a symbol of the Silk Road and of the countries around it. As it is known, the composer of Turandot, the Italian Puccini, was not in a position to finish this opera, because he died before.

Apart from the fact that the unaccomplished opera of Puccini is a synthesis of universal themes of  eternal value, deep-rooted in the most ancestral couches of cultural history (such as the dialectics among masculine and feminine, the discovery of the self…), the plot of Turandot has also several connections with all countries alongside the Silk Road.In fact, the story comes out of a  French translation of a Persian Islamic classical poem, adapted by an Italian playwright and later reinvented by a German poet. The first known source of the plot is to be found in Haft Paykar, a classic of Persian literature, composed by Nezami of Ganja, a poet born in  Azerbaidzan in the 11th century. Turandot’s tale is one of the seven stories of the emperor Bahram’s wives, describing the different facets of love: in particular, it’s the tale of the Slavic princess. Each of the wives of Bahram comes from a different part of Eurasia (“Haft Kesvar”): North Africa, Byzantium, Kievskaja Rus’, Chorasmia, Turkestan/China, India and Persia Originally only the latter was inhabited by man and the fabled home of the Aryans (Airyō.šayana) was located there. Sovereignty over all the seven regions was claimed by Iranian hero-kings. Later on, several authors re-wrote the story, situating it in different countries, such as the Nogai steppe, Astrakhan, Central Asia and, finally,  the Yuan empire. The name Turandokht itself means in Persian “daughter of Turan”, i.e., a Central Asiatic woman. However, available literary sources do not identify well who Turans (the foes of Aryans) were; Turks or an Iranic people?

In archaic Greek, Tyranna was the feminine of Tyrannos, Tyrant. Hence, it means “mistress” and referred to the link between Eros and Thanatos. In ancient Etruria (now, Tuscany), Turan corresponded to Afrodite, and it is still surviving , in the Tuscan folklore, as “Turanna”, a spirit of love. Having said all that, it is normal that the Tuscan Puccini had been stimulated by this character.

Puccini’s opera was subject to ever changing interpretations. Critics of orientalism have long disparaged Puccini’s unfinished opera as an ‘unconscious manifestation of racial arrogance’. Chinese saw the piece as historically inaccurate. But, during the last decades, it has become a sort of symbol of China. According to us, taking into account the plurality of its sources, as well the evolution of its interpretations, it may be understood even as a symbol of the Silk Road.

The unfinished Puccini’s opera has different finals. Two of the composers were Alfano and Berio. Then, we have had a series of adaptations in China, by Beijing and local Operas, by CCTV, and by an international collaboration including  the conductor Zubin Mehta, the Director Zhan Yimou the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino and the choreograph Chen Weiya. All these interpretations and adaptations revolved around the multifaceted character of the opera: its Western, Eastern, or Chinese, character, the meaning of the plot,  the musical genre in which it belongs.As such, it shows that trans-cultural dialogue may be much more that pure celebration rhetoric or commercial trivialisation, but much more an intense debate about the eternal questions of mankind.

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