Something’s different about this production.

PUCCINI: Turandot (2016, Luciano Berio completion)
Cast: Nina Stemme, Aleksandrs Antonenko, Maria Agresta , Coro di voci bianche dell’Accademia Teatro alla Scala
Orch.: Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala di Milano
Director: Riccardo Chailly
Studio: Decca. Blue-ray [1/27/17]
Run Time: 130 minutes
Video: 1.77:1 Color
Audio: DTS-HD 5.1, PCM Stereo
Subtitles: English, German, Mandarin Chinese, Korean, French, Italian
Rating: *****

What is the most outstanding feature of this recording of Giacomo Puccini’s opera Turandot? Is it the vividly recorded sound under the expert baton of conductor Riccardo Chailly? How about those well-miked singers, who manage to sound far better than they did in a recent Metropolitan Opera production of Turandot? Or the staging and lighting at Italy’s La Scala, so lush and regal as to be almost overwhelming (particularly when viewed on a 4K television)? Perhaps the excellent acting, judiciously understated as when Aleksandrs Antoninko didn’t grandstand during the famous “Nessun Dorma”?

No, something’s different about this production. It’s the ending. They’ve changed it.

When Puccini died in 1924, he left the opera incomplete. Two years later Franco Alfano penned a conclusion that, if you’re familiar with the opera, you’ve definitely heard it. Alfano was called in for two reasons: he was known by Puccini’s family and he’d written “Oriental-themed” material before. Alas, neither helped. In the depths of his creative powers, he was shoreline shallow. His Cyrano de Bergerac is a regrettable affair. Even a recent performance with a proboscidate Placido Domingo trudged along sadly, as if it’d just scored last in a Best Opera from a Famous Play contest. Alfano’s ending to Turandot was so lackluster that in 1926 Arturo Toscanini halted the performance at the point at which Puccini had stopped work and refused to go on.

Enter Luciano Berio a few years ago. Commissioned by Puccini’s publisher Ricordi to forge a new ending, Berio came up with one that respects –no, exhalts– Puccini’s dramatic flow. Ricordi apparently picked the right man. A few years prior Berio had “completed” Schubert’s fragmentary Symphony No. 10, not by stitching it with bars Schubert might have written, but by filling in the gaps with wispy threads of modernism that nudge us into crevices of uncertainty. It’s called Awakenings and it’s a real kick to play for friends.

He did another stellar job with the last ten minutes of Turandot. He knew the work was nowhere near La Bohème or Madama Butterfly in style or theme. Instead of Alfano’s conventional hymn of praise, a tutti chorus of wedding well-wishers, Berio plunges Turandot and her persistent suitor Calaf into a selfish world, one that spotlights their amorality (anticipating Alban Berg’s Lulu ten years later). The body of servant Liù, who sacrificed herself for Calaf, is left on stage and the lovers try to ignore it at first. There is much chromatic equivocation, shades of Debussy or Stravinsky, both admired by Puccini. In fact, one of the composer’s neighbors quoted him as saying he wanted to write for Turandot “a finale like that of Tristan.” The music Puccini played for him ended pianissimo. In the final moments of this production, as the lovers walk out together (almost stepping over Liù’s body), the music shimmers with irresolution and trails off . . . pianissimo.

—Peter Bates