Turandot, Puccini, opera, synopsis

The online opera guide to TURANDOT

In his last opera Puccini shows himself at the height of his compositional art. The melodic power of the over 60-year-old had not diminished. On the contrary, he draws from the full, from Liu’s intimate aria to Calaf’s splendid aria, mass scenes and parodic elements, all masterfully resolved.



Overview and quick access






♪ Act I  (Mass scene)

♪ Act II (the riddles)

♪ Act III (Torture scene, finale)


Signore ascolta

Non piangere Liu

Nessun dorma

In questa reggia

Tu che di ciel sei cinta




Recording recommendation

Recording recommendation



Roles and Synopsis








Milan, 1926


Giuseppe Adami Renato Simoni, based on Persian and Chinese sagas.

The main roles

Turandot, Princess (soprano) - Altoum, Emperor of China, father of Turandot (tenor) - Timur, Dethroned King of the Tartars (bass) - Calaf, Prince and son of Timur (tenor) - Liù, slave of Timur (soprano) - Ping, Pang, Pong, three Chinese ministers (baritone, tenor, tenor)

Recording Recommendation

DECCA with Luciano Pavarotti, Joan Sutherland, Montserrat Caballé and Nicolai Ghiaurov conducted by Zubin Metha and the London Philharmonic Orchestra and John Aldis Choir.







The story of Turandot probably originates from an old Persian or Chinese legend. Puccini had seen the Schiller version in a version by Reinhard in Berlin. Simoni and Adami created a magnificent libretto from it, which brilliantly portrays the three main characters (Liu, Calaf, Turandot).




The compositional process of this opera was not straightforward. It lasted over three years and Puccini oscillated between depression and euphoria. More than once he wrote his publisher Ricordi that he wanted to quit. “How to resolve Turandot’s transformation from a freezing cold person to a loving woman was a burden to Puccini and led his creative energies into a permanent crisis” (Uecker, Puccini’s operas).



The role of Liu and Turandot

Turandot is not the sentimental woman who dies ready to make sacrifices like Manon, Butterfly or Tosca. How far away she is from Mimi! Turandot is cold and survives. It took Puccini a lot of energy to feel himself into this role. It is quite possible that this was one of the main reasons why Puccini did not succeed in finishing the opera. Puccini wrote a dramatic role for Turandot that required vocal chords of steel, already her performance aria “In questa reggia” is a tremendous feat of strength.

Puccini’s emotions belong to Liu, the little woman, the underdog of the plot. He gives her the most beautiful themes, not Turandot; three of the six arias in this work resound from Liu’s mouth. It is no coincidence that Puccini died at the same place where Liu also says goodbye to the earth. The verses to her aria are even said to have been written by him.



The Tenor Role

The tenor role of Calaf occupies the most important position in Puccini’s work, next to that of Rodolfo. Calaf is the light figure in this opera and therefore has to take on the task of a prominent dramatic role, which Puccini solves with a very highly written tessitura. The tenor must constantly sing in high registers against a large orchestra and must be heard in mass scenes.



The orchestra and the mass scenes

Puccini gives the sound of the orchestra an important role. Besides the Chinese coloring, mass scenes with glistening sound play an important role. Brass and percussion instruments such as chimes, xylophones or celesta bring a new sound quality to Puccini’s music. With this work, Puccini has opened the orchestra of Italian opera towards contemporaries such as Mahler, Berg or Korngold. For illustration, listen to the Emperor’s marching-up “Gravi, enormi ed impotenti” from the second act.

The mass scenes of the opera pose smaller stages hardly solvable problems, with the result that the work can be seen almost exclusively in larger opera houses or festival venues. In addition, Puccini increased the size of the chorus once again. In no other work by Puccini is this part occupied by a larger size. Masterful is the choral scene of the adoration of the Moon (“Perché tarda la luna”).



Death and world premiere

Already fatally ill, Puccini was no longer able to complete the opera. Puccini had to go to Brussels on November 24, 1924 for a risky operation on a throat cancer (Puccini was a heavy smoker). He still had to tackle the difficult final duet and he wrote on the sketches of this duet: “Poi Tristano”. Five days later he died.
By decision of his publisher Ricordi, Puccini’s family and Arturo Toscanini, the composer Franco Alfano was commissioned to complete the work. Many existing sketches formed the basis. There were some quarrels between Alfano and Toscanini, since in Toscanini’s opinion the music that Alfano composed did not correspond to Puccini’s will (“Too much Alfano and too little Puccini”), since the ending became too bombastic.

The premiere took place in Milan 1 1/2 years after Puccini’s death. At the end of the performance, silence spread through the audience until a tremendous cheering broke out. Turandot prevailed as a masterpiece, but could never reach the popularity of a la Bohème or Tosca.












Synopsis: In the imperial city of China. A Mandarin announces to the people that the princess marries the nobleman who can solve the 3 riddles. If he does not succeed, he must die. In a few moments, the last aspirant is executed on the square.

The music opens with a harmonic that is neither major nor minor and is reminiscent of Wagner’s famous Tristan chord. Soon we are in a music with Far Eastern coloring.

Popolo di Pechino – Pradelli


Synopsis: Timur, the aged Tartar king is on the run with his slave Liu and is among the assembled people on the square. He is knocked over by the pack and saved by a young man. It is Prince Kalaf who recognizes his father in Timur who was believed dead.

Listen to Franco Corelli as Calaf

Padre, mio padre – Corelli

Puccini’s great mass scenes

Synopsis: The people await execution.

It is one of the great mass scenes that Puccini so masterfully conceived. In the following scene we listen to the wonderful scene of the adoration of the Moon.

Gira la cote


The Adoration of the Moon is one of Puccini’s masterfully composed choral scenes.

Perche tarda la luna


Synopsis: Boys announce the arrival of the condemned on the square.

A beautiful piece for a children’s choir singing a traditional Chinese melody (“Jasmine Flower”), which sounds several times in the opera.

Là sui monti dell’ Est


Synopsis: At the sight of the condemned the people feel compassion. Kalaf is disgusted by the cruelty of the princess.

Puccini accompanies the procession with a magnificent funeral march (“Andante triste”).

O giovinetto – Metha



The princess appears

Synopsis: The princess appears. She is deaf to the people’s petitions for mercy. At her sight, Kalaf is suddenly transformed.

Princess Turandot appears with brilliant music accompanied by the hymns of the people.

We hear Placido Domingo in this excerpt from the Karajan recording.

La grazia, principessa … O divina bellezza – Domingo


Synopsis: Timur recognizes the situation and tries to take Kalaf away. But too late. Also the warnings of the three ministers Ping, Pong, Pang cannot dissuade Kalaf from proposing to her.

Figlio che fai – Ghiaurov

Liu’s wonderful “signore ascolta”

Synopsis: Liu has secretly fallen in love with Kalaf and tries to dissuade him from his plan.

Although this piece sounds like Puccini, the melody comes from the Chinese culture, it is a pentatonic music, but is composed with western harmonics. The melody is simple but highly effective and Puccini has deliberately accompanied it with restraint.

This aria is challenging, because the singer has to convey the emotions of the aria in a short period of time due to the brevity of the aria. Begging, love and modesty paired with hope must be credibly expressed in the most beautiful legato. Forgiveness and tenderness must also shine through. A true Herculean task!

You hear an interpretation by Montserrat Caballé. Sung  with her heavenly piano with a beautiful ending. Her soft piani are the perfect counterpart to the metallic, cold Turandot.

Signore ascolta (1)  –  Caballé


Hear a second, great recording  from Lotte Schöne. She was the first Liu in the German speaking area. Listen to the recording from 1928.

Signore ascolta (2)  –  Schöne

Kalafs decision

Synopsis: Kalaf’s decision is made. He asks Liu to take care of his father in case he has to die the next day.

We hear another beautiful melody.

We first hear this aria in an interpretation by Luciano Pavarotti. An interpretation sung with “touching intimacy” (Kesting)

Non piangere Liu (1) – Pavarotti


Another version from Jussi Björling, who gives this aria an appropriate magical melancholic mood.

Non piangere Liu (2) – Björling


Synopsis: Once again everyone tries to dissuade Kalaf from his plan. But in vain. He announces his application with three gong blows.


The first act ends with a powerful orchestra sound.









Synopsis: Since the princess’ sinister decision restless years have passed in China and many princes have been executed. The newest applicant brings the palace into hectic preparations.

Olà Pang



The nostalgic piece by Ping, Pang, Pong

Synopsis: The ministers dream of the beautiful times when he could enjoy in peace in his house in Honan.

Puccini writes a nostalgic, enthusiastic melody for the three ministers. The three dream of their treasures at home. One dreams from the woods near Tsiang, the second from the garden in Kiu and the third from cottages in Honan. This is true Puccini music, who himself was a rather nostalgic person.

Ho una casa nell’Honan


The Riddle Ceremony Starts

Synopsis: They remember the many applicants who had to die. But now it’s time to get to work. Last but not least, a mourning or wedding celebration must be prepared for the following day. A trumpet sound announces the beginning of the riddle ceremony. Scholars appear. They carry the silk rolls with the riddles.

Another mass scene. Performances of this opera are always a treat for the eyes, where exotic stage sets await the audience. The scholars appear, accompanied with solemn music and carry the shrine with the ridPing, Pong and Pang
In the manner of Shakespearean fools, the three ministers cynically comment on the madness of the plot. First and foremost they must be excellent actors. Puccini gives them a difficult musical task with the long scene of the second act and the beautiful play “Ho una casa nell’Honan”.dles onto the square.

Gravi, enormi ed impotenti


Synopsis: Kalaf steps before the emperor, who tries to convince Kalaf that enough blood has already flowed and that he should leave the city. But Kalaf’s decision is made.The people praises their emperor and the Mandarin proclaims the rule of riddles: whoever does not pass it will be executed.

Un giuramento atroce

In questa reggia – the greast appearance of Turandot

Synopsis: Turandot appears. She explains the reason for the bloody edict: Once a foreign king had killed an ancestor of Turandot. And now it’s up to her to take revenge.

Half of the work is over, with the appearance of Turandot the tone colour changes. Seldom has a music characterized a character as icy as this aria. It is a music that radiates coldness, severity and yet also melancholy, that describes her frustration with almost psychopathic traits. The music swings into ever higher registers and reaches the high B several times, the first time when she imitates the scream that Princess Lou-Ling emitted.

Let us come to one of the legendary Turandot of history, Eva Turner.

“What we hear is perhaps the most brilliant soprano voice on record. It is as if enormous masses of sound are chased through a tightly placed tube under the highest tension: the high notes shine with a cold, glistening intensity.” (Kesting, grosse Stimmen)

In questa reggia – Turner


We hear another captivating interpretation from Maria Callas. The sequences in the hight register of the second part are breathtaking.

In questa reggia – Callas


The third Turandot we hear is Birgit Nilsson. She was THE Turandot of her time. The power of her voice was legend. An anecdote: during a performance of Turandot in the Arena di Verona, a local resident called the fire police. He confused the tone of her high C flat with that of a fire alarm…

In questa reggia  –  Nilsson / Corelli



An anecdote with Corelli and Nilsson

In this recording we heard Franco Corelli as Calaf. Besides his good looks, Corelli has what the Italians call squillo, namely a vocal volume that can seemingly cut through steel. Equipped with a wide chest and large lung volume, he can effortlessly outplay everyone on stage. Franco Corelli regards himself as invincible.

Until he meets Birgit Nilsson.

Birgit Nilsson has the biggest Wagner voice since Kirsten Flagstadt and can easily compete with Corelli in terms of vocal volume. The two perform together in Puccini’s opera Turandot at the New York Met. And the terrible happens. In a duet passage, the Nilsson can endure a top note a little longer than the hot-blooded Italian. Destroyed, he returns to his dressing room during the break that follows. Rudolf Bing, the director of the Metropolitan Opera, hurries there immediately. He is already greeted by the screeching of Corelli’s wife and the yelp of the omnipresent dog. In his rage, Corelli slams his fist on the dressing table and catches a small splinter of wood. A small drop of blood has formed. It is so impossible to continue singing laments his wife and asks for an ambulance. Bing comes up with the saving idea. He suggests to Corelli that he should bite the ear of Nilsson in the duet of the next act instead of the rehearsed kiss on her neck. This thought gives the tenor so much pleasure that his face suddenly brightens in no time and the splinter of wood is forgotten. When he tells Nilsson this, it gives him the same satisfSynopsis as if he had actually bitten her.



The scene of the riddles starts

Synopsis: The riddles are almost unsolvable. For no prince shall ever possess Turandot. She speaks to Kalaf: The riddles are three, death one. Kalaf replies passionately, no, the riddles are three, life one!

Hymnal music sound. With great effort the singers have to drown out the orchestra supported by heavy brass.

O principi  –  Ricciarelli / Domingo


There is a nice anecdote about Domingo from a performance with Birgit Nilsson. When the two sang Turandot in the Arena di Verona in 1969, Domingo had a cold. At the final scene Domingo kissed the Swedish singer for so long that the audience shouted “Eee basta, basta” (hello, that’s enough). And Nilsson had Tonsiliits a few days later. But Nilsson later said that this was worth it, singing next to Domingo.

Synopsis: Turandot poses the first riddle: “In the dark night flies a many-hued phanton. The whole world calls for it. But it vanishes with the dawn and is born anew every night”.  Kalaf does not hesitate and calls “hope”. The wise men nod.

Only accompanied by pale drumbeats does Turandot announce the first riddle in a cold voice.

Straniero ascolta… si rinasce! – Nilsson / Corelli


Synopsis: Turandot poses the second riddle: “It kindles like a flame, but it is no flame. At times frenzy and impetuous. Inertia makes it flag, but dream of conquest and it flares up. It glows like the setting sun. Kalaf does not hesitate and calls “the blood”. The wise men nod.

Guizza al pari di fiamma … si principessa – Nilsson / Corelli


Synopsis: Turandot poses the third riddle: “It is ice that becomes even more ice through fire. If it allows you your freedom, it enslaves you. If it accepts you a slave, it makes you a king.  Kalaf does not hesitate and calls “Turandot”. The wise men nod. The crowd celebrates the winner and rejoices at the end of the cruel game.

Gelo che ti da foco ….la mia vittoria – Sutherland / Pavarotti



Turandot is shocked

Synopsis: Turandot is shocked and begs her father not to let her into the arms of the stranger. But he reminds her of the sacred oath.

Figlio del cielo – Callas


Synopsis: To everyone’s surprise, Kalaf declares that he will not force the marriage. He himself wants to give her a riddle. Should she be able to give his name by daybreak, she may decide his fate.

The second act ends with the sounds of the imperial anthem. Puccini studied Chinese harmonics in depth. In total we find 8 original Chinese melodies in this opera, one of which is the Emperor’s Anthem.

Ai tuoi piedi










Synopsis: The heralds proclaim in the imperial palace that no one shall sleep. All have a duty to search for the name of the foreign prince.

Cosi commanda Turandot


The great aria “Nessun dorma”

Synopsis: In the pavilion Kalaf  is waiting for morning.

Puccini early turned away from the “verdian” kind of tenor aria. Even though this aria is brilliant, it is significantly shorter and more integrated into the plot than those of its predecessor. For Puccini, the dramatic flow was always in the foreground and long repetitive arias stand in the way.

Muted strings accompany the prince and exude a nocturnal mood. But the prince is certain that he will conquer the princess, and we hear one of the great (typical) Puccini arias, which became the most famous piece of Turandot, if not of opera music, Pavarotti’s final high B went around the world in 1990 on the occasion of the World Cup.

Nessun Dorma (1)  –  Pavarotti/Mehta


You will hear the next version from Jussi Björling. He sings it with power and brilliance and sings the difficult ending, it seems, almost effortlessly.

Nessun dorma (2)  –  Björling


The Great Torture Scene

Synopsis: Ping, Pang and Pong try to move Kalaf to leave the city before dawn, because he doesn’t know about the cruelty of the princess, she doesn’t shy away from torture to learn Kalaf’s name. Turandot appears and henchmen drag Timur and Liu along. Kalaf claims they don’t know his name. But to save the king, Liu claims that she alone knows the name. Triumphantly, Turandot orders the soldiers to torture her.

Straniero tu non sai


Synopsis: But Liu does not reveal his name even under torture.

For Puccini Turandot  came from another world, wheras Liu was one of the classic Puccini roles. Puccini masterfully set Liu’s drama to music.

Signor non parlero – Hendricks


Liu’s Suicide – Puccini’s last composition before his death

Synopsis: Surprised, Turandot asks what makes her endure the torture. Liu answers her “love”. Then she snatches the dagger from a soldier and stabs herself.

Arturo Toscanini, the conductor of the premiere, broke off the premiere in the third act after Liu’s death music with the words “Here ends the word of the master”. The curtain closed. At first silence spread until it broke out into a never-ending ovation for the deceased master.


Alfano completes the opera

By decision of Ricordi (the publisher), Puccini’s family and Arturo Toscanini, the composer Franco Alfano was commissioned to complete the work. The basis was many existing sketches. There were some quarrels between Alfano and Toscanini, because in Toscanini’s opinion Alfanos music did not correspond to Puccini’s will (“too much Alfano and too little Pucccini”), because the ending became too bombastic. Already for Puccini the great question was: How to solve the transformation of Turandot from an ice-cold person to a loving woman. This was a burden for Puccini and led his creative energies into a permanent crisis (Uecker, Puccini’s operas).

Let us listen to Liu’s farewell. Puccini composed a simple piece. Introduced and accompanied by a solo violin, Liu tells of  her love for Kalaf. Liu’s farewell begins simply. Introduced and accompanied by a solo violin, Liu tells of her love for Kalaf. The aria “tu che di gel sei cinta” begins piano and with despair. With “perché egli vinca” she gains confidence and finally the aria goes into a great and nostalgic crescendo to “prima di questa aurora” and ends in the desperate cry with the presentiment of death.

Tanto amore segreto… Tu che di gel sei cinta  –  Mitchell


As second version you will hear the aria of Liu in a convincing version by Angela Gheorghiu. She sings the aria in a lyrical, warm tone.

Tu che di gel sei cinta – Gheorghiu


Synopsis: Timur laments the death of his slave.

The blind Timur bends over the dead. Accompanied with beautiful passages of the choir Puccini creates an inconsolable atmosphere.

Liu sorgi – Park


Synopsis: Kalaf accuses Turandot of cruelty.

Principessa di morte  –  Pavarotti/Sutherland/Metha



Turandots Transformation

Synopsis: Kalaf approaches Turandot, tears off her veil and kisses her. This transforms Turandot and she confesses that she was afraid of him, but also felt a sense of love.

We hear this scene in the recording of Pavarotti and Sutherland, conducted by Zubin Mehta. Sutherland never played Turandot on stage. Nevertheless she convinces with its power in the high register. Pavarotti sings a heroic and yet noble Calaf.

Che e mai di me  –  Pavarotti/Sutherland

The grand finale

Synopsis: Turandot advises him to leave the city. Instead Kalaf reveals her his name and gives his life into the hands of the princess. The hour of trial has now come. It is morning and Turandot steps before the emperor and triumphantly announces that she knows the name of the stranger.  His name is … “Love”. Kalaf and Turandot embrace, the crowd rejoices.

This conclusion is surprising for the viewer. Turandot has developed very little as a person in this opera. Moreover, Turandot’s love is overshadowed by the death of Liu, which she triggered with the order of torture. Puccini faced this unsolved problem and it seems that he had no satisfactory solution.

We hear the finale in the interpretation by Maria Callas. She sang the opera on stage only in her early years. Her Turandot was extremely multi-layered and she could give the Turandot that certain extra. Listen to the gripping finale in the version of the 1957 Serafin recording.


Del primo pianto… So iltuo nome


In 2001 the composer Lucio Berio was commissioned to work out a new finale. Two alternative finales are available today.

To conclude this portrait  you can see a nice excerpt of the finale from a performance of the MET, which gives a good impression of the opulence of the mass scenes.

Diecimila anni al nostro imperatore

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Recording Recommendation


DECCA with Luciano Pavarotti, Joan Sutherland, Montserrat Caballé and Nicolai Ghiaurov under the direction of Zubin Metha and the London Philharmonic Orchestra and John Aldis choir.




Peter Lutz, opera-inside, the online opera guide to TURANDOT, by Giacomo Puccini.





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