The plots of great operas are often difficult to fathom, partly because opera composers are generally more interested in writing great music than telling a believable story. The plot is merely a peg on which to hang arias, duets and choruses. Opera plots are often absurd, with unlikely happenings, impossible coincidences and ridiculous characters right, left and centre. On the other hand, some operas are also great dramas. See what you think about this one:
Turandot was Puccini's final opera, left unfinished at his death. At the first performance, at La Scala, Milan, on 25th April 1926, the conductor, Arturo Toscanini, laid down his baton in the middle of Act 3, turned to the audience and told them that this was the point at which the composer had died. The curtain was lowered slowly and the audience departed in silence. However, the opera is now performed in its entirety, the remaining pages having been completed by Franco Alfano, based on Puccini's sketches.
Act 1 - an open space in central Beijing, in ancient times
A mandarin reads a proclamation to the crowd that the hand of Princess Turandot will be given to the first prince of royal birth who can answer her three riddles. The downside of the deal is that failure to answer correctly means that you do not come back next week, but lose your head. The Princess is clearly in no great hurry to get hitched.
The crowd press forward to catch a glimpse of the Prince of Persia, who was unwise enough to take up the challenge and will soon pay the price for failure.
Also in the crowd is a beggar and a slave-girl, and another Prince, all of them hiding their identity. They meet, and the Prince recognises the beggar as being his own father, the exiled King Timur of Tartary.
As the Prince of Persia is brought forward to be executed, the crowd call for Turandot to show mercy, and the unknown Prince curses her cruelty. When Turandot appear, the Prince refuses to bow down to her, but instead is struck by her beauty and falls hopelessly in love with her. The merest glimpse of a well-turned ankle and some men are putty in the hands of a beautiful woman.
Despite the entreaties of his father and Liu, the slave-girl, he determines to try his luck at the Princess's challenge. All he has to do to announce his challenge is to strike the great gong three times. Even the three courtiers, Ping, Pong, and Pung, try in vain to dissuade him; and if the sight of the Prince of Persia's severed head being carried across the stage by the executioner won't put him off, nothing will. He strikes the gong and the curtain falls.
Act 2, Scene 1 - a gorgeously painted pavilion
A bit of light relief as the three comic courtiers take the stage. Was Puccini a secret fan of Gilbert and Sullivan's Mikado? Maybe!
Scene 2 - outside the Palace
The Emperor appears with all his court, and even he tries to dissuade the Prince from taking up the challenge. Turandot appears and explains her motive for being so unpleasant, which is that her grandmother had been cruelly murdered and Turandot sees it as her duty to avenge the crime by slaughtering as many foreign princes as she can.
So the test goes ahead. Question One - "What is it that flies by night, that is born when the sun sets, and dies when it rises?" The Prince gives the answer - "Hope". He is correct. Question Two - "What is it that dreams can kindle into flame, whose voice we tremble to hear, and which is the colour of the setting sun?" Answer Two - "Blood". Turandot is now seriously worried, as we have to assume that no previous candidates have got as far as this before. Question Three - "What is it that, while it freezes, sets you on fire, which by setting you free makes you a slave, and by taking you as a slave makes you a king?" The Prince gives the answer - "It is you, Princess Turandot".
He's right, you know. She can't pretend that he isn't, because the answers are written on sealed scrolls borne by the Emperor's wise elders. She appeals to the Emperor, but he points out that, by the terms of the deal, she must now marry the unknown Prince.
So he's won the bet, and the opera will now draw to a triumphant conclusion? You might think so, but we're only in Act 2, and we haven't got to "Nessun Dorma" yet. At this point we get one of the strangest plot twists of all time. Having won the prize, the Prince now gives Turandot another chance to win. If she can answer his riddle, which is "What is my name?", before dawn, then she wins after all and he dies. Next time you win the lottery, you will hand the money back and have another go, won't you?
Act 3, Scene 1 - the Palace gardens at night
OK, so this is where "Nessun Dorma" comes in. "None shall sleep", sings the Prince, as he reflects on the efforts that the Princess, and everybody else, will be making to learn his true name.
It's time for Ping, Pong and Pung to re-appear, this time offering the Prince lots of goodies just to leave and forget all about Turandot. No deal - despite what he knows about her bloodthirsty character, she is the only woman for him. It takes all sorts.
There's a commotion as a company of guards comes in, dragging Timur and Liu with them. Word has got about that these two were seen with the Prince the previous day, so surely they must know what his name is?
Turandot is summoned, and she questions Timur, but Liu steps forward and says that only she knows the answer. Oh no, she doesn't, says the Prince. Well, one thing leads to another and Liu admits that she loves the Prince - apparently she is as good as the Prince at falling helplessly in love at a moment's notice. Liu has realised that she can now never have the Prince for herself, but she can at least save his life by sacrificing her own, which she does by stabbing herself.
Only the Prince and Turandot are left on the stage. He tears off her veil and kisses her. She admits that she had actually fancied him all along, but then she reminds him that he has not told her his name. You might think that this is a bad move on the Prince's part, given the volatile nature of Turandot's character, but he tells her that his name is Calaf, thus putting his life back in her hands. We know he's a bit of a gambler, so maybe he reckons that that smacker he gave her will have done the trick. Just bear in mind for a second that this was the role played by Pavarotti, even in his sixties. Some gamble, that!
Scene 2 - outside the Palace
Everybody has gathered to learn the outcome of the previous night's challenge. Turandot looks down at Calaf and tells her father, "I know the name of the stranger. It is Love!" So the kiss did work, after all. Calaf leaps up and takes her in his arms. General rejoicing as the curtain falls. Not bad for a grand opera - only a couple of grizzly deaths, and a happy ending.
Source: "Opera Synopses" by J. Walker McSpadden (5th ed, 1944)