Mamma Mia

by Michael Walsh

So there I was, tooling along the Sunset Strip the other night and blasting KUSC on my car radio when on came Act I of Puccini’s last opera, Turandot. (Go ahead, pronounce the “t.” No, really.) Even though Puccini died before he could finish the third act, one can make the case that Turandot is his finest, most accomplished work, with more thrilling moments per page than almost any other opera, with the possible exception of Götterdämmerung. The opera was premiered (by Toscanini!) in 1926, just a year after the other greatest opera of the period, Alban Berg’s Wozzeck.

Anyway, even though I’ve heard Turandot scores of times, I was suddenly struck by an eight-note phrase in the opening chorus — part of the big tune that marks the entrance of Timur and Liu as they fight their way through the crowd calling for the luckless Prince of Persia’s forfeited head. You can hear it here at 4:16 of the marvelous Metropolitan Opera version conducted by James Levine.

Does that remind you of something? You can hear exactly what at 1:22 here.

And if you want to hear the operatic origin of the famous opening trumpet motif, please have a listen to the first 25 seconds of “Povero Ernesto” from Donizetti’s opera, Don Pasquale, which you can find here.

That’s not remotely plagiarism; it’s inspiration and homage among great composers. As we say in Hollywood: Good writers borrow; great writers steal.

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