Puccini’s Opera: Turandot

Turandot [1926]

Opera Turandot is set in Beijing, China and tells the story of proud Princess Turandot and unknown Prince Calaf. Turandot is a haughty Princess who wants to take revenge for a crime once committed against one woman in her ancestry line by condemning young princes from afar to their deaths. To achieve this aim, Turandot demands that every man that wants to marry her has to solve her three riddles. Whoever solves her three puzzles will become her husband, but if that person is unable to solve them – he will be executed. However, despite very probable deadly consequences of this trial-riddle imposed by the Princess, there is no shortage of young men willing to risk their lives since Turandot is very beautiful. Then, comes Calaf, a Prince travelling with his father Timur and a slave-girl Liu, and he will stop at nothing until he completes the challenge and wins the hand of Turandot. Turandot is an opera of extravagant displays, great passions and narrative contrasts and extremes. Puccini’s music diffuses Asian tones and makes use of powerful choirs, providing a kaleidoscopic musical experience, with the heart-wrenching final-act aria “Nessun dorma” rightly deserving its place among the finest operatic arias ever.

Luciano Pavarotti performing “Nessun Dorma” in Paris in 1998

Puccini was inspired to write this opera by reading Friedrich Schiller’s 1801 adaptation of a play Turandot by Carlo Gozzi, who, in turn, based his story on one of the stories by Persian poet Nizami who lived in the twelfth century. The opera was completed posthumously by Franco Alfano (Puccini’s student at that time and also composer) and set to a libretto by Renato Simoni and Giuseppe Adami, premiering on 25 April 1926 in Milan. The success of Turandot is not only due to its music and spectacle. It is a multi-dimensional story with scenes of pure drama, pure lyricism, and even some comedy, amidst all the funerary motives and the general atmosphere of solemnity. As in many fairy-tales, the story’s main theme is the completion of tasks or trials to achieve the desired goal, which is the union with one’s beloved and happiness. Calaf is unknown in Beijing, but he is viewed as just one of many princes who tried their fate and died horrible deaths. Even before he finally faces his three riddles, Calaf first has to overcome other challenges and temptations, including the distracting love of slave-girl Liu and the chatter of three charismatic minsters Ping, Pang, and Pong who try to dissuade Calaf from the task, tempting him with gold and women. As in many fairy-tales also, there is the emphasis on the power that any name/its utterance holds, on the symbolism of the number three: three riddles, three ministers and a love triangle, and on the thin line that separates life/happiness/love (wedding) from death and nothingness (execution). In the end, the Sun rises. Unrequited, self-sacrificing love did its work, the tyranny of power and pride is conquered, bravery and perseverance stand triumphant, and the battle of the wills has finally come to an end.

I watched this stunning production of Puccini’s Turandot performed in the Forbidden City Beijing (the opera’s original setting) in 1998, and see also my other posts dedicated to opera: Mozart’s Opera the Magic Flute & Puccini’s Opera Madama Butterfly.

8 thoughts on “Puccini’s Opera: Turandot

  1. I know this opera well. It always irks me that she’s supposed to be so beautiful that no man could look upon her without falling in love, and then, when she comes on stage, she’s always played by this big, fat, ugly woman. His own fault for making her a low Mezzo instead of a high Soprano and writing such heavy arias for her. Not my favorite Puccini (and I also dislike his Butterfly). La Boheme, Tosca, Manon Lescaut, and La fanciulla del West for me – in that order!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, I agree about the lead choices, but I guess I also understand that the vocals are more important. I do have a weakness for opera and ballet set in “exotic locations”, but am also interested looking into Puccini’s lesser known work including Manon Lescaut and La fanciulla del West, so thanks very much for your order of favourites!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Lovely review. I haven’t watched this but am aware of the broad story; it always reminded of the Hatim Tai story where seven riddles must be solved–the number remains the same in all versions and there are subtasks. There are several versions but the one I read had the princess setting these riddles since she was an orphan and this was the only way to ensure a worthy groom.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks and that’s interesting about the Hatim Tai story. I just love all the riddle-asking in stories. There is so much emphasis in fairy-tales on courage, might and power winning love and those intellectual tasks provide something different. I appreciate that Calaf in Turandot opera not only answered intellectual/philosophical questions, but also showed how well he already knew the Princess. Though not directly related to marriage, mythical Sphinx asking riddles and fairy-tale of The Peasant’s Wise Daughter are other great examples.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I seen a film version of Hatim in Hindi which had it’s own interpretation of the story, though some at least if the riddles were similar to those in the book version. They aren’t riddles with straightforward answers and involve quests to solve them so it’s nice to see how they play out.

        Btw ever since I read your post, Nessun Dorma has been playing in my head🙂🙂

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