Skip Navigation LinksHome > Season > Learn more: TURANDOT > Synopsis

Synopsis

TURANDOT by Puccini

Act I
A crowd is assembled before the Imperial Palace in Peking. A Mandarin announces Princess Turandot's fatal decree: the princess will only marry the man who succeeds in answering three riddles put before him; the punishment for failure is death. The Prince of Persia, who has failed in the attempt, is to be beheaded at the rising of the moon. The crowd ghoulishly anticipates the spectacle, calls out to the executioner, and tries to force its way into the palace. Two people are overrun by the crowd: Timur, the aged, deposed & exiled Tartar King, and Liu, his gentle and faithful slave-girl companion. When Liu calls for help, a young man comes forward to offer assistance. It is Prince Calaf, also a fugitive in exile and Timur's son. They recognize each other and are reunited. Calaf gratefully asks Liu the reason for her sacrifice to accompany the aging ruler and she shyly tells him that one day the Prince had smiled at her and since that day her life has been devoted to him. The executioner begins sharpening the blade for the beheading as the crowd impatiently awaits the rising of the moon. As the Prince of Persia is led through the crowd, their thirst for blood turns to pity and they call on Turandot to spare him. Calaf curses the Princess for her cruelty, but when she appears in the moonlight he cannot help himself and rapturously expresses his wonder. With an imperious gesture, Turandot orders the execution to proceed. Overwhelmed by her beauty, Calaf stays rooted to the spot. Timur and Liu vainly warn him of the danger of such an infatuation. Calaf pays no heed and approaches the gong to announce his intention to be put to the test. Three Imperial Ministers (Ping, Pang and Pong) appear and attempt to dissuade him. Calaf does not yield even when the executioner reappears brandishing the Prince of Persia's head. He rushes to the gong, striking three fatal blows and simultaneously calling out Turandot's name.

Intermission

Act 2
In a pavilion near the palace, Ping, Pang, and Pong comment on Prince Calaf's recent challenge and lament the number of executions they have to prepare as a result of Turandot's decree. Nostalgically, they sing of their country homes and the peace and tranquility of better days. They sing a hymn to love but are swiftly brought back to the harshness of reality by the hum of activity caused by the gong, summoning them to attend the latest trial.

Dignitaries and commoners are gathered near the staircase in the great palace courtyard. The Emperor begs the Prince to desist from his rash challenge, but Calaf is obstinate. Turandot's decree is announced and the princess herself explains the reason for the cruel ordeal: one of her ancestresses had been defeated by a foreign prince and dragged into captivity, where she died of grief and shame. Turandot has vowed to take vengeance for this outrage by punishing any man who might wish to marry her. The Princess asks the first riddle: “What is born each night but dies at dawn?” Calaf answers correctly, “Hope.” The crowd is astonished. The icy princess asks the second riddle: “What flickers red and warm like a flame, but is not fire?” The Prince hesitates, but eventually answers, “Blood,” and the ministers confirm his answer. Turandot is visibly shaken. She asks the third riddle face to face with Calaf: “What is like ice yet burns?” Triumphantly, he answers, “Turandot!” The crowd rejoices. The princess returns to her father's side and begs him not to deliver her into the hands of the stranger, but the Emperor cannot go back on his word. However, Calaf listens to her appeal and frees her from the pact, explaining that it is her love he truly wants. He proposes to Turandot that if she can discover his name by dawn he will prepare to die. Turandot nods her acceptance. The Emperor, overcome by such generosity, expresses his desire to welcome him as a son. The crowd acclaims him and bursts into an imperial hymn.

Intermission

Act 3
As Calaf contemplates the palace gardens in the moonlight, heralds announce an edict issued by Turandot that, under pain of death, no means must be spared to discover the name of the Prince before dawn. Little by little, the frightened crowd fills the garden and offers Calaf women, glory or riches, if he will only leave China. He remains adamant and the crowd becomes threatening. Suddenly, Timur and Liu are dragged in. The crowd summons Turandot who orders the old man to reveal the Prince's name. Liu comes forward saying that she alone knows his name but refuses to reveal it. As Calaf is held back by guards, she is interrogated and tortured, but still refuses to reveal the name. Turandot asks her in astonishment what it is that gives her such strength. Liu replies that it is love that makes her willing to sacrifice her life for the Prince. Turandot commands the torture resume and calls the executioner. Breaking free, Liu prophesies to the Princess that she will eventually succumb to the Prince's love. Grabbing a dagger from a nearby guard, she stabs herself and falls dead at Calaf's feet. The death of the innocent girl shocks everyone and produces a wave of pity, superstition, and foreboding among the crowd. Liu is lifted up and carried in procession to burial followed by a grieving Timur. The Prince and Turandot are left alone face to face. Calaf calls on Turandot to desist from her ruthless cruelty. She retreats in alarm, but he grasps her and kisses her. Humbled, Turandot is reduced to tears and confesses that she has both loved and feared him from the very first moment. Nevertheless, she asks him to leave her and not claim a greater victory than the one he has already won. Calaf puts his life in her hands by revealing his name. This unexpected disclosure rekindles the Princess' pride. Believing she could still be victorious she summons Calaf before the Emperor and the crowd.

The staircase in the palace courtyard is once again filled with chief dignitaries and the populace for the final trial. Turandot announces to her father that she knows the name of the Prince. All expect her to make the fatal revelation that will sentence Calaf to death, but instead she turns to him and exclaims, “His name is….LOVE.” The reply is echoed by Calaf as he rushes to embrace her. The crowd joyously acclaims the couple with a hymn to love.

Synopsis prepared by Virginia Michalicek


Share with DiggShare with del.icio.usShare with FacebookShare with StumbleUponShare with reddit