The usual reason an opera by a distinguished composer remains incomplete is death. Sometimes, however, the composer loses interest, or as in one of the examples below suffers from gargantuan writer’s block. A few examples of unfinished operas are presented here. A few are very well known, others barely a footnote. They are presented in the order in which they occurred to me. In other words, there’s no rational sequence.
Jacques Offenbach (1819-80) died before he could complete his opera The Tales of Hoffmann. He was world renowned for his operettas. He had written one opera before Hoffmann (Die Rheinnixen) but that work was not a success and is rarely performed. At his death, he had finished the vocal score and had orchestrated the Prologue and Act 1. The opera was completed by Ernest Guiraud. Guiraud made many cuts and added to the score. The opera exists in many editions. Even the order of the acts was uncertain. During the mid-twentieth century, the Met did the Venetian act second and Antonia’s act third. I prefer this order but have been outvoted by the passage of time. The end of the epilogue exists in almost countless versions.
The septet (six singers and the chorus making seven) was one of Guiraud’s additions. Based on the Barcarolle which opens Act 2 (now typically set in Venice) the ensemble is a grand piece worthy of Offenbach. Tales of Hoffmann Septet This excerpt, which I have previously posted, includes the duel and Giulietta’s abandonment of Hoffmann which ends the act.
Likely the most popular unfinished opera is Puccini’s Turandot. The composer’s score, orchestration included, went through the death of the slave girl Liu. Puccini had intended that the final duet between Turandot and Calaf be the pinnacle of his career. Alas, cancer and a heart attack after radiation therapy in Brussels finished the composer before he could finish the opera. Franco Alfano completed the opera using sketches Puccini had left behind. Toscanini cut Alfano’s conclusion and this version is most often used, though no one is happy with it.
Puccini was at the zenith of his powers when death took his pen. The finale of Act 1 shows how great was his command of voice and orchestra. This excerpt starts with the tenor’s Non piangere Liu and continues to the act’s conclusion. The tenor is the nuclear-armed Amadeo Zambon. Taken from a live (1980) performance in Bari, the final high note is still circling the Adriatic.
Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924) was an Italian pianist/composer whjo ended up based in Berlin. He was a great musical intellectual whose scholarship was universally appreciated. His large output of compositions was more noteworthy for their thought than their inspiration. His last work was an opera based on the early German version of the Faust legend. He wrote the libretto. He died before he could finish the work. A performing version was made by his student Philipp Jarnach. In 1982, Antony Beaumont completed the opera using sketches by Busoni that were previously thought to have been lost. The opera is occasionally performed. The Met did it in 2001.
In the work’s last scene, Faust sees a beggar woman with a child and realizes that she is the Duchess (a character from a previous scene). She hands him the child, tells him there is still time to complete his work before midnight, and then vanishes. Faust forms a circle on the ground. He then steps into it with the child’s body and, with one last supreme effort, he transfers his life force to the child. The Night Watchman calls out the midnight hour; Faust falls dead; a naked youth arises with a blossoming branch in his right hand and steps forth into the night. The Night Watchman, now revealed as Mephistopheles, sees Faust’s body on the ground. Mephistopheles throws Faust’s body onto his shoulders and walks off; distant voices repeat Faust’s final words. (Synopsis adapted from Opera Arias.) In Busoni’s Faust, the title character is a baritone. Mephistopheles is a tenor. Doktor Faust final scene
‘Ange si pur’ (‘Spirto gentil’ in its Italian incarnation) is an aria from Donizetti’s La Favorite. It started life as an aria for the composer’s unfinished opera Le duc d’Albe. The work was intended for the Paris Opéra, but the soprano was the director’s mistress and disliked her role. So Donizetti left town leaving only sketches for Acts 3 and 4. His pupil Matteo Salvi finished the opera 40 years later. He composed a replacement aria, ‘Angelo casto e bel’.
Arnold Schönberg’s Moses un Aron was to have three acts, but the composer never got around to finishing it even though he lived almost 30 years after finishing the first two acts. There’s only one ‘a’ in Aaron because Shönberg was superstitious and didn’t want a title with 13 letters. The opera is based on a single tone row. The libretto is by the composer and is based on the Book of Exodus. Aron, was hast du getan? is the end of the opera. Moses has come back from his encounter with God on Mount Sinai to discover the golden calf and its attendant disorder. In the third act which has words but no music, Aron falls dead. If atonal music is to your taste then you’ll like the opera. Otherwise…
Les francs-juges was to be Hector Berlioz’s first opera. He abandoned the project and destroyed the music. All that remained was the overture. But it’s a really good one and worth hearing anytime it’s on the program. Berlioz was only 23 when he composed the overture. Beethoven was still alive. As you can hear the Frenchman was well on his way to changing orchestration into the sound we still associate with the symphony orchestra. Les franc-juges overture
Well, that’s all I have. Consider this article unfinished.