On the evening of April 25, 2026, a huge crowd was gathered inside and outside of Teatro alla Scala in Milan. This wasn’t only a new opera by the most famous and beloved Italian opera composer of his time. It was a sort of requiem for him, as well as for an era. One and a half years earlier, Puccini had passed away. He never finished his last masterpiece.
Everything went more than well. The opera was received with great enthusiasm by the audience. But when Liù had made her sacrifice in the third act, Timur was mourning, and the chorus had sung their famous Liù Poesia… Toscanini put down the baton. To everybody’s surprise, he slowly turned to the audience and said:
– Here finishes the opera because here the Maestro died.
This phrase has been interpreted in many ways, often as much more poetic than that. But some of the musicians in the orchestra later claimed that the phrasing was that or similar to those words. Dry, sober, and without any poetry.
The reason for Toscanini’s decision to cut short the premiere there and not continue to the end with the additional content composed by Franco Alfano, isn’t clear. Toscanini was a dear friend of Puccini, and maybe he just didn’t want to “spoil” the maestro’s writing. You can read more about all of that here.
After the premiere, Toscanini never conducted Turandot again.
Premiere – April 25, 1926. Teatro alla Scala, Milan, Italy.
Composer – Giacomo Puccini
Librettist – Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni
Running Time – Roughly 2 hours or a little less plus intervals, including the ending.
There is no Ouverture.
Act 1 – Approximately 35 minutes.
Act 2 – Approximately 45 minutes.
Act 3 – Approximately 40 minutes.
Turandot – Dramatic Soprano. Princess of China.
Calaf – Dramatic (Spinto) Tenor. Prince of Tartary in disguise.
Timur – Bass. King of Tartary in exile. Calaf’s father.
Liù – Lyric Soprano. A slavegirl. Taking care of Timur.
Altoum – Tenor. The Emperor of China.
Ping – Baritone. Minister (Chancellor).
Pang – Tenor. Minister (Administrator).
Pong – Tenor. Minister (Head chef).
A Mandarin – Baritone.
The opera is based on the famous folklore story about the cruel and bloodthirsty princess who shall marry anyone who surpasses her trials. The tale is often placed in China but sometimes declared as originally from Turkey or the Middle East.
Download this short Pdf-guide. Print it, fold it, and keep it in your pocket as a help when you’re at the Opera. Please keep your phone turned off when inside the theater.
Background – The opera Turandot is set in…
And the time is a sort of ancient fairy tale time, with traditional Chinese attributes. Modern productions often derail from that idea though.
We are in Beijing. Somewhere around the Palace where the Emperor lives, and where the trials and the executions are carried out. All this is not very important though, as this is a general story about love and sacrifice. And it’s not really bound to any time or place anyway.
With Turandot, the great opera tradition died…
This statement could seem controversial and for some, it is right out provocative. Still, when Puccini died in 1924, a tradition that had gone on for hundreds of years was if not completely pushed off the road, so at least limited to a peripheral lane.
Let me explain:
Over the centuries there have been many great opera composers, Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, and others. Puccini was the last of these, and in my opinion maybe the greatest.
After Puccini, came many talented composers but the focus was less on the simple melody, and more on harmonic and musical evolvements. The most evident current was of course that of the second Viennese school, Arnold Schönberg, and the dodecaphonic music theory (twelve-tone, serialism). The 44 most performed operas in the world were all written before Turandot.
To that, the whole music industry changed, with a focus that turned away from the theaters. The record companies started to grow with an increasing part of music being registered instead of live. And of course, popular music started to become a competing trend. Even big opera countries like Italy and Germany saw a decline in ticket sales.
About Turandot can be said that even if it’s not Puccini’s most performed opera, that prize goes to La Bohème, many experts hold it as his most accomplished. The Maestro shows a completely flawless hand when intertwining the singing, the orchestra, the stage, and the action. Turandot is a true masterpiece.
Earlier in 1924, Puccini was diagnosed with throat cancer. He passed away on November 29, that same year, of heart failure a few days after an important surgery. When he died he had completed the death of Liù in the third act. After that, the score was blank.
It could seem significant that the brightly flaming tradition of opera, whose birth occurred 324 years earlier no more than 100 km (60 miles) from Puccini’s residence, to some extent lost its spark when the Maestro passed on.
First Act – In front of the Forbidden City.
Back to the execution of the Persian Prince.
The executioner, Pu Tin Pao, enters. Seeing the innocence and fragility of the youngster, the people ask for mercy but there’s no mercy to be found. Calaf curses the cruelty of the regent…
– Ch’io ti veda e ch’io ti maledica!
When you hear the chorus sing rhythmical phrase:
– Principessa, Principessa…
Turandot appears. The full orchestra again plays Mo Li Hua with the brass section intoning the melody. She gives the sign for Pu Tin Pao to kill The Persian Prince. But Seeing the beauty and ice-cold pride of the Princess, Calaf is converted. His second phrase is completely different from his first:
– O divina belezza! O meraviglia! O sogno! (Oh godlike beauty… My dream…)
His feelings of despise are transformed into those of passion in just a few seconds. His father sees this and he and Liù try to get him away from there, to safety. When Calaf calls Turandot’s name three times, he is answered only by the dying Prince of Persia off-stage. Puccini brilliantly has him sing the same interval but half a tone lower.
Now the three ministers, Ping, Pang, and Pong enter to try to talk some sense into Calaf. These three characters always act as one. They somehow represent wisdom and rationality… Cynicism, if you like. Still, they can’t get through to him. Calaf is in love. Liù sings her first aria:
– Signore ascolta… (If you should die tomorrow, he will lose a son, and I the shadow of a smile)
Calaf answers singing his first aria:
– Non piangere Liù…. (Don’t cry Liù. Tomorrow maybe your lord will be all alone in the world. Take him away from here…)
The aria continues into a trio and then an ensemble. Everybody tries to stop the Prince, his family, the ministers, and in the end all of Peking, but Calaf is deaf to all arguments. In an exclamation of passion, he strikes the gong three times and the challenge is taken.
Second Act – first part. A pavilion.
Now follows a 12-minute-long scene that doesn’t really move the story forward at all. We are more or less inside Ping, Pang, and Pong’s quarters, and the ministers are commenting on the situation in China.
First, they complain about their jobs. They have become ministers of death.
– O China, O China…
Then they dream of their homes far away from Peking where life was good, and the Princesses didn’t murder anyone…
These three characters are not the usual supporting roles. Their singing is always intertwined and they act as a unit. They are quite present throughout the opera and should be casted as leading roles. If so and if they are worth their salary, these 12 minutes can be very interesting. If you dive into the meaning of the words, Puccini lets them make quite an outstanding reflection on life, our struggles, and what peace really means.
They laugh at all the crazy people of this world who lose their minds over something as futile and insignificant as love. But they are brutally aware of the fact that the only thing that can save them is that same, simple, and fugitive love…
– Glory to the beautiful naked body that knows the mystery! Glory to the thrill of love who wins and finally gives peace back to China!
Second Act – second part. A vast square inside the palace walls.
And finally, we get to meet the terrible Princess. But first, the Emperor enters followed by all the people. The stage should be impactful. After all, we are at the center of the known world with the most powerful person alive declaiming. The music here is another example of how Puccini used existing Chinese samples to color his opera. More about that here. The chorus sings: Ten thousand years to our Emperor:
– Diecimila anni al nostro Imperatore…
The Emperor tries to convince the young Prince to not take the challenge.
– Un giuramento atroce mi constringe a tener fede al fosco patto. (A terrible oath compels me to honor the gloomy pact.)
The part of the Emperor doesn’t require anything particular. It is labeled tenor but anybody can sing it. It is also accompanied only by occasional percussions and strings tremolo so you don’t need a strong voice. It’s a perfect part for a famous star from old, who maybe doesn’t really have any voice left but still can enchant the audience by just being there.
Calaf calls out to do the test three times and is accepted. Upon that, Turandot arrives and her subordinates tremble in fear.
If the part of the Emperor is a walk in the park, Turandot is much more of a challenge to cast. She should be good-looking and have a voice that makes it credible that so many young men fall in love with her. But she also needs one of the most voluminous voices of all the Soprano heroines out there. And the most challenging aria is the one she going to sing right now, right out of the box.
– In questa reggia… (In this very palace…)
She explains why she despises men to such a degree. A long time ago, a reigning Princess named Lou Ling, suffered a gruesome death at the hand of a Conquerer of Tartan blood. Lou Ling’s outcry echoes within Turandot and she shall avenge any man who tries to defeat her.
The aria finishes with Turandot telling Calaf:
– The riddles are three, death is one…
– No, no. The riddles are three, life is one…
And they both have a long high C at the end. Those should be triumphantly fantastically sung by both. Let’s hope they are.
Turandot starts with the riddles. From the beginning, she is confident but as the Prince somehow manages to get the answers right, she slowly starts to doubt. And at the same rate, the crowd who is following the examination with growing interest gains hope.
The answer to the first riddle is Hope. The answer to the second riddle is Blood. But when Calaf struggles with the third riddle, he is encouraged by everybody around him, including his father and of course Liù. Triumphantly he proclaims:
– La mia vittoria ormai t’ha data a me! Il mio fuoco ti sgela: Turandot! (My victory has given me you. My burning flame is melting you… The answer is Turandot!)
Turandot realizes that she has lost and that this strange man shall have her as a spouse. She throws herself at her father’s feet, begs, implores, and cries for him to not let her be given away to the foreign Prince. The Emperor is bound by the oath though.
Around them, the people are cheering for the unknown Prince. Finally, the days of death and torments are over and maybe peace can be restored over the Empire. But the challenge isn’t over for Calaf has another surprise. First, he sings a short phrase…
– No, no, Principessa altera! Ti voglio ardente d’amor! (… I will have you burning with love)
This should be Calaf’s second high c. There is an alternative but if the tenor is worth his salt he should shine on the top note here.
– Tre enigmi m’hai proposto, e tre ne sciolsi. Uno soltanto a te ne proporrò. (Three riddles you asked me and three I solved. Now I ask you only one…)
And since nobody knows the true identity of the Prince, he asks her to know his name before sunrise. If she can find who he is, he will die. But if she can’t tell him his name by dawn, she will have to marry him.
Third act – first part. The Garden.
It is night, and everybody is awake. Turandot has decreed that nobody shall sleep until the identity is found. The guards (tenors) sing from off-stage:
– Pena la morte, il nome dell’ignoto sia rivelato prima del mattino! (Under penalty of death, the name of the unknown shall be revealed before morning)
The terrified citizens answer:
– Nessun dorma… Nessun dorma… (None must sleep…)
And so we have come to another highlight when Calaf sings maybe the most famous opera aria of all time: Nessun dorma!
The people of Peking are scared to death. And that includes Ping, Pang, and Pong who arrive and try to bribe the Prince. First with beautiful women, then with wealth, and fame. Lastly, all of the crowd begs him to flee, to run away, and the ministers promise to help him in every way. But Calaf is unreasonable.
– … Crollasse il mondo, voglio Turandot! (…Even if the world crumbles, I want Turandot!)
So, the cruelty, as so often happens with tyrants, is brought to a new level. Because the guards have found Timur and Liù and they have seen them talking to the Prince. Turandot enters and the torture can begin. But when the guards reach for the old man, Liù steps up:
– Il nome che cercate io sola so! (Only I know the name you seek.)
When Liù suddenly screams with pain, Calaf and Timur react with dismay but Liù tells the guards:
– Stringete, ma chiudetemi la bocca ch’ei non mi senta! (Squeeze harder, but shut my mouth so that he can’t hear me!)
Liù declares that she would rather die than reveal the name. Turandot, who has never experienced such strength asks the slave where it comes from.
– Principessa, l’amore! (… Love!)
And she sings a short aria so beautiful and devout that your eyes should water. She explains to the ice-cold Princess about the force that comes from love.
– Tanto amore segreto… (Abundance of secret and unconfessed love…)
She follows up with another short and very famous aria…
– Tu che di gel sei cinta… (… You, covered in frost… Before dawn, you will love him too.)
She reaches out, grabs a knife from one of the guards, and stabs herself mortally. She has sacrificed herself for a man whose heart is promised to another woman.
Her death moves Turandot. But the one who is most devastated is of course Timur. He has lost his companion and the only one who stuck with him during the hard times. He cries out:
– And I will follow you to lay down close to you by the night that has no morning!
And this is where Puccini died.
Third act – second part. Outside the imperial palace.
The rest is usually by Franco Alfano. And his finale is just as it should be for an opera of this dimension… Bombastic. Turandot shivers and crumbles. The unthinkable gift by a slave girl for the sole reason of love has cut through Turandot’s defenses… The increadibly unselfish offering by someone who has nothing to gain but still is prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice finally reaches the heart of Turandot and melts the ice.
If you are watching a staging with the Alfano-finale you will hear an aria sung by Turandot just a few minutes before the end. It is maybe more Alfano than Puccini, and it’s a little jewel. And it shows how capable Alfano really was.
– Del primo pianto… (How many have I seen die for me! And I despised them. But you, I feared…)
When the first rays of the rising sun reach the forbidden city, and the Emperor arrives, she sings:
– Padre augusto, conosco il nome dello straniero! Il suo nome è… Amor! (Father, i now know the name of the foreigner. His name is… Love!)
The opera finishes with the melody of Nessun dorma sung by the chorus.
What to look out for.
Curtain up – Popolo di Pekino. The Mandarin declares the law.
6 minutes – Perché un dì nella reggia m’hai sorriso. Liù reveales her love in one single phrase.
12 minutes – La sui monti dell’est. The children’s choir sings Mo Li Hua.
16 minutes – Turandot appears.
20 minutes – The Persian Prince cries out from off-stage.
27 minutes – Signore ascolta. Liù’s first aria.
29 minutes – Non piangere Liù. Calaf’s first aria.
34 minutes – Calaf calls the name of Turandot three times and strikes the Gong.
Curtain up – The ministers are worth listening to. Try to follow the subtitles. If you can’t, print this one.
15 minutes – The Emperor arrives.
20 minutes – The Mandarin from the beginning sings the law once again.
21 minutes – In Questa Reggia. Turandot’s first aria.
28 minutes – Straniero ascolta. The trials begin.
40 minutes – Calaf challenges Turandot to find his name.
3 minutes – Nessun dorma! Calaf’s second aria.
14 minutes – Tanto amore segreto. Liù’s second aria.
17 minutes – Tu che di gel sei cinta. Liù’s third and last aria.
24 minutes – Liù! Poesia! The chorus sings the last words that Puccini ever wrote.
30 minutes – Del primo pianto. Turandot’s second aria.
The voices of Turandot and Calaf.
Casting Turandot is difficult. And that could very well be one reason why it isn’t performed more. All Puccini operas suffer to some degree from the problem of volume. You would need reasonably big voices. But when it comes to Turandot, you need huge voices.
And since it is difficult to set up, only theaters with resources try out Turandot. And big theater companies have big theaters and the voices need to be even bigger. The size of the production pushes the singers to extreme levels.
The two leading roles have to cope with this difficulty. For Calaf it is a bit more straightforward. He is a dramatic tenor. He needs a dark color, good lines, volume, and astonishing heights. A pretty normal though rare “tenore spinto”.
But Turandot is harder to frame. You need volume, but volume with sopranos can sometimes be equal to a metallic, harsh sound. A voice that is struggling. But Turandot has to be warm too, not only cold and strong. In newer productions, she is sometimes sung by more lyrical sopranos, voices with a more soft and round sound. That would work just fine, and modern amplifying techniques can help a lot. Still, the risk is that the very thick orchestra forces the softer voice to lose some of its beauty. She could try to darken the sound and it will come out as… Yes struggling.
The solution is to get hold of a beautiful warm, soulful voice with extraordinary volume and height as well… And that, ladies and gentlemen, today would be a task for a manager with magical capabilities.
Below is Rosa Raisa who was the first ever Turandot. I can’t find any recording where she sings from this opera, but here is “Mamma morta” from Andrea Chenièr by Giordano. To me, it’s a marvelous voice with exceptional heights. But you judge for yourself…
And it’s full of oriental melodies.
Puccini found his creative haven at the shores of Torre del Lago, Tuscany, Italy. There he bought and refurbished a villa that is now a wonderful museum, Villa Puccini, that you can visit if you come to Italy. At Bagni di Lucca close by, in the early 1900s lived a friend of Puccini’s… Baron Edoardo Fassini Camossi.
Fassini had decorated his villa in a perfect Chinese style. He had served in China and other locations in the orient and was familiar with eastern culture and traditions. He had a music box that he supposedly gave to Giacomo. The melodies played by that music box are among others Mo Li Hua, the theme of the three ministers, and the music at arrival of the Emperor in the second act.
But there is also the theme of the arrival of the family in the first act of Madame Butterfly written no less than 20 years earlier. Could Puccini’s operas have been significantly less interesting without the baron’s carillon? One should remember though that at the beginning of 1900, records existed and were produced commercially, but it was a new invention and they weren’t imported from China or Japan.
Something about how Puccini died.
In summer 1924, Giacomo Puccini, who was a lifelong smoker, started to complain about hoarseness, ear pains, and difficulty swallowing. After first having been diagnosed with rheumatic inflammation, it was eventually established that he suffered from throat cancer… And of a very aggressive type.
Puccini needed immediate care. But maybe because of his wealth and fame, he opted for a new experimental treatment. Instead of a traditional cure including radical surgery, he decided to try radiation which was a new and unproven technique at the time. And the only place in Europe where radiation treatment was available was in Brussels, Belgium. So Puccini went there.
On November 24, he underwent a three-hour surgery with local anesthesia by Professor Louis Ledoux. Seven nails of radium were inserted directly into the tumor. The medical team claimed the intervention went very well. But five days later at 11.30 am on the 29th of November, The Maestro died from internal bleeding.
Puccini was a close friend of the conductor Arturo Toscanini, and they had already talked about what should happen if Puccini couldn’t finish the project. Jokingly Puccini had told his friend to take care of Turandot, his most beloved Princess. And Toscanini honored that request.
Something about the ending… Or endings.
The different versions:
- The second version by Alfano was for many decades the standard solution to the unfinished opera.
- The first version thought to be lost, was surprisingly found in London in 1982. It gives us a much more nuanced picture of the Alfano composition. It is almost double in length compared to the second version, and therefore Turandot and Calaf have more time to reconcile. The sudden change of heart from both Calaf, after the death of Liù, and more so from Turandot can feel a bit unsubstantiated in the second version.
- The Italian composer Luciano Berio wrote his version of the finale. It premiered in Los Angeles, US, on May 27, 2002. This version has become reasonably popular in later years.
- The Chinese composer Hao Weiya composed his idea of how the opera should finish. It was performed in Beijing in 2008.
- And of course, there is still the possibility to finish the opera after the death of Liù. This is an increasingly popular solution.
Download this short Pdf-guide. Print it, fold it, and keep it in your pocket as a help when you’re at the Opera. Please keep your phone turned off when inside the theater.