Recommended recording

Curated by Mary Elizabeth Kelly, Primephonic Curator

About this work

Puccini was nearing the completion of Turandot, when he died in rather short order following surgery for throat cancer. At the behest of Arturo Toscanini, Franco Alfano, a former student of Puccini, finished the opera -- the final duet and last scene -- using Puccini's sketches. Turandot was premiered on April 25, 1926, at Il Teatro alla Scala in Milan, in a performance led by Toscanini; strangely enough, the maestro did not then use Alfano's ending, instead ending the performance where Puccini's finished score left off.

Turandot's libretto was fashioned by Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni, based on Schiller's adaptation of a Carlo Gozzi drama. The story is set in Imperial China, Act One beginning near the walls of Beijing. A royal edict from Princess Turandot, daughter of the Emperor, is read: she will marry the first man of royal blood able to answer three riddles. Failure by the suitor will result in his death. Accompanied by his slave girl Liu, the old vanquished Tartar king, Timur, now blind, falls to the ground. Prince Calaf comes to his aid and recognizes him as his father, with whom he had lost contact. The crowd gathering outside cries for the head of the latest failed suitor, the Prince of Persia. Calaf becomes enraged at Turandot's cruelty in requiring the executions, but when he sees her, he becomes instantly enamored of her. Over the objections of Timur and Liu, Calaf seeks to answer the three riddles, which he does successfully. Turandot begs her father for release from the terms of the edict, but is refused. Calaf, however, offers to sacrifice his life if she can learn his name before dawn. Liu and Timur are brought to Turandot, but the latter commits suicide rather than divulge his name. Later Calaf, alone with Turandot, kisses her passionately and then trusts in her sudden change of heart by revealing his name. They later appear before the Emperor and Turandot discloses his name -- Love.

Puccini's score features his usual quota of popular numbers and brilliant scoring. There are effective choruses, as well: "Muoia! Noi vogliamo il carnefice," sung when the crowd calls for the execution of the Prince of Persia, and in the dark and atmospheric "Arrota! Che la lama guizzi," sung by the executioner's assistants. But it is the individual numbers that are best known in this opera. Liu's "Signore Ascolta" is the slave girl's beautiful attempt to dissuade Calaf from seeking to be Turandot's suitor. His heartfelt response to her comes with his "Non pangiere, Liu."

The most famous aria in the opera, though, is "Nessun dorma," sung by Calaf, confident Turandot will not learn his name. As for this composition's artistic worth, Turandot may well be Puccini's finest opera.