Turandot is the last opera of Giacomo Puccini, and it was completed posthumously in 1926. Puccini was inspired by the 1762 play of the same name by Count Carlo Gozzi, but the story of Turandot originally comes from a 12th-century Persian epic. Puccini sets the action of his opera in an imagined China. Turandot is an aloof and enigmatic Chinese princess who demands that her suitors answer three riddles. If they fail to answer correctly, they are executed. The ambitious young Prince Calaf falls for Turandot and aims to be the first to answer her riddles successfully. Let no one sleep until we’ve explored Puccini’s strange fantasia!
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The beginning of Turandot finds Prince Calaf in exile in Turandot’s kingdom.He is hiding from his enemies under the name of The Unknown Prince. Calaf reunites with his father Timur and his father’s companion Liù at the execution of Turandot’s most recent suitor. Calaf falls in love with Turandot on first sight and decides to hear the three riddles. He persists despite warnings from Liù and Ping, Pang, and Pong, the Queen’s three ministers.
IN QUESTA REGGIA
“In Questa Reggia” is an aria sung by Turandot. In this aria she recounts how her ancestor was murdered by the King of the Tartars. Turandot states that the riddles are her personal vengeance against all men. “Gil enigma sono tre,” Turandot sings, “la morte una!” “The riddles are three; death is one.” Calaf responds optimistically, replying that “una è la vita” or “life is one!”
THE THREE RIDDLES
The three riddles are as follows:
What is born each night and dies each dawn?—Calaf correctly answers hope.
What flickers red and warm like a flame, yet is not a flame?—After a moment’s thought Calaf answers with blood.
What is like ice but it burns, and if it accepts you as a slave, makes you king?—Calaf again correctly responds with Turandot.
Turandot is distraught by this turn of events and begs her father to not have her marry the Unknown Prince. Calaf tells her that if she can find out his name by the morning he will let her execute him, but otherwise she will have to marry him.
“Nessun Dorma” is the most famous aria of Turandot. Turandot has told her subjects that no one must sleep in the entire kingdom until they have discovered Calaf’s true name. Calaf sings this aria, and notably declaims at the end of it “Vincero!” or “I will win.” Although not written in the original score, a sustained B natural (a B4 for vocal pitch, which is very high) typically closes the aria in most performances.
Although Calaf and Turandot are nominally the protagonists of Turandot, Liù is its heart. She has unrequited love for Calaf, and she tries to warn him against pursuing Turandot in the aria “Signore, ascolta” (“My Lord, listen!”). Calaf waves away her concerns, singing “Non piangere, Liu” (“Do not cry, Liù”). In the opera’s final act, Liù and Timur are captured by Turandot. Liù kills herself rather than reveal Calaf’s name, singing the aria“ Tu che di gel sei cinta” (“You who are begirded by ice”) to chastise Turandot for her cruelty. Turandot, shaken by these events, eventually accepts Calaf’s love.
Quizbowl is about learning, not rote memorization, so we encourage you to use this as a springboard for further reading rather than as an endpoint. Here are a few things to check out:
Visit this website to hear some of the most famous performances of the opera’s notable arias.
Check out this video to see how famous tenors have handled those tricky final notes of “Nessun Dorma.”
Read this article if you want to learn more about the Haft Peykar, the Persian Medieval Romance that contains the original story of Turandot.
Puccini died before he could complete Turandot, resulting in several variations on the opera’s ending.
Finally, if you can't make it to the Royal Opera House, check out this performance of Turandot.
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