The opera’s is set in China and involves Prince Calaf, who falls in love with the cold Princess Turandot. To obtain permission to marry her, a suitor has to solve three riddles; any wrong answer results in death. Calaf passes the test, but Turandot still refuses to marry him. He offers her a way out: if she is able to learn his name before dawn the next day, then at daybreak he will die.
The opera was unfinished at the time of Puccini’s death in 1924, and was completed by Franco Alfano in 1926. The first performance was held at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan on 25 April 1926 and conducted by Arturo Toscanini. This performance included only Puccini’s music and not Alfano’s additions. The first performance of the opera as completed by Alfano was the following night, 26 April.
Completion of the score after Puccini’s death
When Puccini died, the first two of the three acts were fully composed, including orchestration. Puccini had composed and fully orchestrated act 3 up until Liù’s death and funeral cortege. In the sense of finished music, this was the last music composed by Puccini. He left behind 36 pages of sketches on 23 sheets for the end of Turandot. Some sketches were in the form of “piano-vocal” or “short score,” including vocal lines with “two to four staves of accompaniment with occasional notes on orchestration.” These sketches supplied music for some, but not all, of the final portion of the libretto.
The premiere of Turandot was at La Scala, Milan, on Sunday 25 April 1926, one year and five months after Puccini’s death. Rosa Raisa held the title role. Tenors Miguel Fleta and Franco Lo Giudice alternated in the role of Prince Calaf in the original production, although Fleta sang the role for the opera’s opening night. It was conducted by Arturo Toscanini. In the middle of act 3, two measures after the words “Liù, poesia!”, the orchestra rested. Toscanini stopped and laid down his baton. He turned to the audience and announced: “Qui finisce l’opera, perché a questo punto il maestro è morto” (“Here the opera ends, because at this point the maestro died”). The curtain was lowered slowly.
Place: Peking, China
Time: Legendary times
In front of the imperial palace
In China, the beautiful Princess Turandot will only marry a suitor who can answer 3 secret riddles. A Mandarin announces the law of the land. The Prince of Persia has failed to answer the three riddles, and he is to be beheaded at the next moonrise. As the crowd surges towards the gates of the palace, the imperial guards brutally repulse them, causing a blind old man to be knocked to the ground. The old man’s servant, Liù, cries out for help. A young man hears her cry and recognizes that the old man is his long-lost father, Timur, the deposed king of Tartary. The young Prince of Tartary is overjoyed at seeing Timur alive, but still urges Timur to not speak his name because he is afraid that the Chinese rulers, who have conquered Tartary, may kill or harm them. Timur then tells his son that, of all his servants, only Liù has remained faithful to him. When the Prince asks her why, she tells him that once, long ago in the palace, the Prince had smiled at her.
The moon rises, and the crowd’s cries for blood dissolve into silence. The doomed Prince of Persia, who is on his way to be executed, is led before the crowd. The young Prince is so handsome and kind that the crowd and the Prince of Tartary decide that they want Turandot to act compassionately, and they beg Turandot to appear and spare his life. She then appears, and with a single imperious gesture, orders the execution to continue. The Prince of Tartary, who has never seen Turandot before, falls immediately in love with her, and joyfully cries out Turandot’s name three times. Then the Prince of Persia cries out one final time. The crowd, horrified, screams out one final time and the Prince of Persia is beheaded.
The Prince of Tartary is bedazzled by Turandot’s beauty. He is about to rush towards the gong and to strike it three times – the symbolic gesture of whomever wishes to attempt to solve the riddles so that he can marry Turandot – when the ministers Ping, Pang, and Pong appear. They urge him cynically not to lose his head for Turandot and to instead go back to his own country. Timur urges his son to desist, and Liù, who is secretly in love with the Prince, pleads with him not to attempt to solve the riddles. Liù’s words touch the Prince’s heart. He begs Liù to make Timur’s exile more bearable by not abandoning Timur if the Prince fails to answer the riddles. The three ministers, Timur, and Liù then try one last time to stop the Prince from attempting to answer the riddles, but he refuses to heed their advice.
He calls Turandot’s name three times, and each time Liù, Timur, and the ministers reply, “Death!” and the crowd declares, “We’re already digging your grave!” Rushing to the gong that hangs in front of the palace, the Prince strikes it three times, declaring himself to be a suitor. From the palace balcony, Turandot accepts his challenge, as Ping, Pang, and Pong laugh at the Prince’s foolishness.
Scene 1: A pavilion in the imperial palace. Before sunrise
Scene 2: The courtyard of the palace. Sunrise
The Emperor Altoum, father of Turandot, sits on his grand throne in his palace. Weary of having to judge his isolated daughter’s sport, he urges the Prince to withdraw his challenge, but the Prince refuses. Turandot enters and explains that her ancestress of millennia past, Princess Lo-u-Ling, reigned over her kingdom “in silence and joy, resisting the harsh domination of men” until she was raped and murdered by an invading foreign prince. Turandot claims that Lo-u-Ling now lives in her, and out of revenge, Turandot has sworn never to let any man wed her. She warns the Prince to withdraw but again he refuses. The Princess presents her first riddle: “What is born each night and dies each dawn?” The Prince correctly replies, “Hope.” The Princess, unnerved, presents her second riddle “What flickers red and warm like a flame, but is not fire?” The Prince thinks for a moment before replying, “Blood”. Turandot is shaken. The crowd cheers the Prince, provoking Turandot’s anger. She presents her third riddle “What is ice which gives you fire and which your fire freezes still more?”. As the prince thinks, Turandot taunts him, “What is the ice that makes you burn?” The taunt makes him see the answer and he proclaims, “It is Turandot! Turandot!”
The crowd cheers for the triumphant Prince. Turandot throws herself at her father’s feet and pleads with him not to leave her to the Prince’s mercy. The Emperor insists that an oath is sacred and that it is Turandot’s duty to wed the Prince . She cries out in despair, “Will you take me by force? The Prince stops her, saying that he has a riddle for her: “You do not know my name. Tell me my name before sunrise, and at dawn, I will die.” Turandot accepts. The Emperor then declares that he hopes that he will be able to call the Prince his son when the sun next rises.
Scene 1: The palace gardens. Night
In the distance, heralds call out Turandot’s command: “This night, none shall sleep in Peking!” The penalty for all will be death if the Prince’s name is not discovered by morning”. The Prince waits for dawn and anticipates his victory: Nessun dorma – “Nobody shall sleep!”