Exotic Settings and a Blockbuster Aria, in Puccini's 'Turandot'

Puccini's opera takes place in Beijing, during an unspecified time deep in the past. As ACT ONE opens, a Mandarin reads a proclamation: Any prince who wants to marry Princess Turandot must first answer three riddles. If he fails, he will die. Turandot's latest suitor was the Prince of Persia. He failed the test, and is scheduled for execution that night. The crowd is agitated and urges the executioner on.

Suddenly, a slave girl called Liù cries out for help -- her aging master has been shoved to the ground and is about to be trampled. 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 their enemies, and that only Liù has stayed with him. Calaf wants to know why she remained faithful. She says it's because once, long ago, Calaf smiled at her.

The mob again cries out for blood, and just then, the moon appears, signaling that it's time for the execution. The condemned Prince of Persia marches by.  His calm and dignity move the crowd, and they ask Princess Turandot to spare him.

She refuses. With a gesture of contempt, Turandot tells the executioner to proceed, and the crowd hears the cry of the dying man in the distance.

Despite all this, Calaf is entranced by the princess and determines to win her over. He walks to the gong and prepares to strike it -- the official signal that Turandot has a new suitor. Turandot's ministers Ping, Pang, and Pong try to discourage Calaf. Timur and Liù also beg him to stop. But as the act ends, Calaf strikes the gong and calls out Turandot's name.

In ACT TWO, crowds gather to hear the princess challenge Calaf with her riddles. But first, Turandot recounts a story about the horrific murder of one of her ancestors.  It's a grim tale that may explain why she is so cold and vengeful.

Then she poses the first question to Calaf: "What is born each night and dies at dawn?"

"Hope," Calaf answers.

Then 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?"

Calaf cries out, "Turandot!"

It's the correct answer.  Calaf has solved all three riddles, and Turandot is terrified. She turns to her father, begging him to save her from marriage to Calaf. Seeing Turandot's distress, Calaf proposes a riddle of his own: If she can guess his name by dawn, he will give up his life.

ACT THREE opens in the palace gardens, as night is falling. Calaf hears an official proclamation: On pain of death, no one in Beijing shall sleep until Turandot learns the stranger's name. That's the setup for one of the most famous tenor arias ever composed -- "Nessun dorma" -- "None shall sleep."

Calaf is confident that he'll soon be married to Turandot. But her ministers, Ping, Pang, and Pong urge him to give the whole thing up. The citizens live in fear of Turandot's rage, and threaten to kill Calaf unless he reveals his name.

Suddenly soldiers enter, dragging the slave girl Liù and her master, Timur.  Nobody knows the truth -- that Timur is actually Calaf's father, and that Liú has known both men since childhood.  Calaf tries to convince the mob that neither one of them knows his secret. When Turandot appears, commanding Timur to speak, Liù cries out that she alone knows the stranger's identity.

Turandot orders her tortured, but Liù remains silent. Turandot is angry, yet impressed, and demands to know the secret to Liú's courage. Liù answers with a single word:  "Love."

Enraged, Turandot tells the soldiers to step up the torture, but Liù quickly snatches a dagger from one of her guards, and kills herself.  Her body is carried away, with Timur and the crowd following slowly behind.

Turandot is now alone with Calaf.  He takes her in his arms, and kisses her.  Experiencing true passion for the first time, Turandot weeps with pleasure and relief.  Calaf, now sure that he has won her over, tells her his name. As the opera ends, Turandot approaches his throne, and announces the stranger's identity to an assembled crowd. His name, she says, is "Love."