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The Story of 'Turandot'

Composer Giacomo Puccini died in 1924, leaving <em>Turandot</em> unfinished.
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Composer Giacomo Puccini died in 1924, leaving Turandot unfinished.

BACKGROUND: Turandot was first performed in 1926 at La Scala, in Milan. The story originated two centuries earlier, in a fiaba, or dramatic fairy tale, by the Italian writer Carlo Gozzi. His inspiration was a compilation of traditional Asian stories, and the tale of Turandot became even more famous when Gozzi's version was adapted by the German playwright Friedrich Schiller.

Puccini began sketching music for the opera early in 1921. He wanted some authentic Chinese touches, so he listened to a friend's Chinese music box, and studied sheets of folk music.

But when Puccini died in November of 1924, the opera was incomplete. Conductor Arturo Toscanini suggested that the score be given to the composer Franco Alfano for completion. Toscanini wasn't thrilled with the result. He did conduct the premiere, but in the third act, at the point where Puccini's music stopped and Alfano's began, Toscanini laid down his baton. The score was eventually published with Alfano's ending, edited by Toscanini.

ACT 1: The action is set in "legendary times" in Beijing. As the opera opens, a Mandarin reads a proclamation: Any man who wants to marry Princess Turandot must answer three riddles. If he fails, he will die. Turandot's latest suitor, the Prince of Persia, has failed the test and is scheduled to be executed that night. The people have come to view these events as entertainment, and an agitated crowd urges on the executioner.

Suddenly, a slave girl called Liu cries out for help — her master has been shoved to the ground and is in danger of being trampled in the mob. A handsome young man comes to her aid, and recognizes the old man as his long-lost father, Timur, the former king of the Tartars. Timur tells his son, Calaf, that he is still fleeing from his enemies, and that only Liu has remained faithful to him. Calaf asks her why. She says it's because once, long ago, Calaf smiled at her.

As the mob cries out for blood, the moon rises. It's the sign for the execution. The condemned Prince of Persia marches by, and the sight of him moves the crowd so much that they ask Princess Turandot to spare him. She refuses. With a gesture of contempt, she tells the executioner to proceed, and the prince is beheaded.

Despite her coldness, Calaf is entranced by Turandot and determines to win her over. He approaches a ceremonial gong, ready to strike it as the official signal that the princess has a new suitor. Turandot's ministers Ping, Pang and Pong try to discourage Calaf. Timur and Liu also beg him to stop. But Calaf strikes the gong and calls out Turandot's name.

ACT 2: Ping, Pang and Pong, recall all the lives lost to Turandot's whims, and hope for a more peaceful future. But for now, crowds are gathering to hear the princess put Calaf to the test. To begin his trial, Turandot recounts the gruesome murder of one of her ancestors, the story that explains her cold and vengeful nature.

She then confronts Calaf with the first riddle: "What is born each night and dies at dawn?"

"Hope," Calaf answers, correctly.

Unwavering, Turandot asks the second question: "What flickers red and warm like a flame, yet is not fire?"

"Blood," says Calaf.

Turandot is shaken. No one else has ever gotten even this far with her riddles. She asks the third question: "What is like ice yet burns?"

Boldly, Calaf answers, "Turandot!" Right again.

Aghast, Turandot turns to her father. She begs him not to make her go through with the marriage. Seeing her distress, Calaf proposes a riddle of his own: If she can guess his name by dawn, he will give up his claim on Turandot, and sacrifice his life.

ACT 3: In the palace gardens, the stage is set for one of opera's most famous moments. There has been an official decree: On pain of death, no one in Beijing shall sleep until Turandot learns his name. Hearing this, Calaf realizes how desperate the Princess has become, and he ponders his impending victory over Turandot in the the aria — "Nessun dorma!" — "None shall sleep!"

Ping, Pang, and Pong arrive and try to get him to call off the whole thing. It seems Turandot has told the ministers that they'll all be killed if Calaf's identity remains a secret. The citizens, crazed with fear of Turandot, threaten to stab Calaf unless he tells them his name.

Suddenly soldiers enter, dragging Liu and Timur. These two, they say, have been seen with Calaf, and seem to know him. Calaf tries to convince the mob that neither one of them knows his secret. When Turandot orders Timur to speak, Liu comes forward and says that she alone knows the stranger's identity.

Turandot orders soldiers to torture Liu, but she says nothing. Turandot asks Liu what gives her such astonishing strength. "Love," Liu says. Unimpressed, Turandot orders the torture to continue. Afraid that Calaf might intervene to save her, Liu snatches a dagger from one of the soldiers and kills herself, saying that through her sacrifice, Turandot will learn about love's true power. Timur and the crowd follow as her body is carried away.

Turandot and Calaf are left alone. Finally, Calaf takes her in his arms, and forces her to kiss him. Until now, Turandot has never experienced true passion, and she weeps. Calaf, confident that he has won her over, reveals his name. As the people sing the praises of the emperor, Turandot approaches his throne, and announces the stranger's identity. His name, she says, is "Love."

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