Last year I had one post about Opus in which I talked about some of the greatest Italian opera masters. I simply enumerated and mentioned some of the names of their capolavori (masterpieces) without going deeper into the plots. It’s time I focused on one them –Turandot by Giacomo Pucini, and it’s time I recalled you the fabulous story of the Chinese princess and her three riddles – Hope, Blood and Turandot.
The plot of the opera is based on one “1001 Nights” Persian saga (“Haft Paykar” whose main poem was “The Seven Beauties”) by the 12th century poet – Nizami Ganjavi. The plot was used first by Carlo Gozzi at il Teatro del’arte in 1762. Later it was revised by Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller for the Weimar Theatre and the music was composed by Carl Maria von Weber. How exactly did the story of Turan-Dokht (Turan’s daughter) and Prince Calaf thrill Giacomo Pucini? He watched the play at the Reinhardt Theatre in Berlin in 1919. After that he engaged the two journalists – Adami and Simoni, who worked on the libretto. Simoni himself had lived in China for some years while Puccini made research on the Chinese music and musical instruments. Unfortunately, the last true master of Italian opera had health problems and he died on November 29, 1924.
He left the opera unfinished and it became a huge problem and even the Prime Minister was involved. Nobody wanted to accomplish it although Puccini had left 36 pages. Finally, Franco Alfano (Puccini’s student and friend) completed it. In fact, he created four “versions”. Three of them were rejected by Arturo Toscanini who had to conduct the very first performance at il Teatro alla Scala in Milan on April 25, 1926 because “Alfano’s style” was much more feasible than that of Puccini. But he did approve the fourth one. There is one very curious fact about this first performance. When the parts composed by Puccini finished and those of Alfano’s had to begin, Toscanini stopped and faced the audience saying that Puccini’s work finished there and the lights were turned off. Thrilling, isn’t it?
After this prelude, let’s get back to Turandot herself. Who is she? Why is she so cruel? Who melts her heart and how?
Turan’s daughter is a cruel Chinese princess who asks riddles and any wrong answer of her suitors results in death. And why does she do it? For the sake of fun? Absolutely, no. It’s her revenge to all men because her grandmother (Princess Lo-u-Ling) was dishonored and cruelly killed in the past.
Actually, the opera starts in this way. The 13th prince is beheaded. The crowd enjoys the spectacle. But there is one wandering unknown princess who is desperately in love with Turandot. Nobody can change his intention to run the risk and win the Princess’s heart. The warnings of his father who is the half-blind emperor of the nearby kingdom conquered by the Chinese, doesn’t help. Liù’s strong love for the Prince doesn’t change his mind either. Even the three ministers – Ping, Pang, and Pong, are powerless.
Prince Calaf’s determination is unique. He is fearless and his unlimited love for Turandot doesn’t leave him at peace. And it gives him hope. Yes, la speranza (hope) is the answer to the first riddle. And which are the other two? Blood and Turandont. He is the only one who manages to give the correct answers and this frightens the Princess. She asks her father for assistance but he says that it is her promise and it should be kept.
The young Prince calms her down. He asks her a riddle. She ought to find out and mention his name all’alba (at dawn). If she succeeds, he will accept death. But if she fails, she will have to become his wife. At this moment she makes all her subordinates start searching for the answer to the Prince’s riddle. And the order is “Nessun dorma” – the splendid aria in which the Prince expresses his confidence that Turandot will be his:
“Nessun dorma! Nessun dorma! Tu pure, o Principessa, nella tua fredda stanza, guardi le stelle che tremano d’amore, e di speranza! Ma il mio mistero chiuso in me. Il nome mio nessun sapra! No, No! Sulla tua bocca lo diro quando la luce splendera! Ed il mio bacio sciogliera il silenzio che ti fa mia! Il nome suo nessun sapra. E noi dovrem, ahim, morir, morir! Dilegua, o notte! Tramontate, stelle! Tramontate, stelle! All’alba vincero! Vincero! Vincero!”
[None shall sleep! None shall sleep! Even you, O Princess, in your cold bedroom, watch the stars that tremble with love and with hope! But my secret is hidden within me. None will know my name! No, no! On your mouth I will say it when the light shines! And my kiss will dissolve the silence that makes you mine! No one will know his name, and we will have to, alas, die, die! Vanish, o night! Set, stars! Set, stars! At dawn, I will win! I will win! I will win!]
And he is right. At dawn he takes her in his arms and kisses her lips revealing his name to her. Thus he melts the ice in her heart and she becomes his wife. But their love is “marked” by Liù’s death, who prefers dying to mentioning the Prince’s name.