Opera North Blog

Turandot in a nutshell


Everything you need to know about Turandot in one place — right here!

What is the story?

Turandot is based on a story found in a collection of stories recorded by François Pétis de la Croix: The Book of One Thousand and One Days

In ancient Beijing, the beautiful Princess Turandot vows that no man will ever marry her — seeking to avenge an ancestress who was brutally mistreated by a foreign prince, years ago. All who wish to marry her are given three riddles, and all who fail to answer are put to death (it’s a bit savage). Enter our hero Calaf, a deposed prince in hiding. On seeing Turandot, he is dazzled by her beauty and puts himself forward to face the deadly riddles, despite the pleas of his father Timur and servant girl Liù, who is (not so secretly) in love with him.

To Turandot’s horror, Calaf survives the challenges and wins the right to wed her. However, he decides to give the Princess one way out: if she can discover his name by the morning, she can execute him. Will Calaf’s true identity be learned, and what price will be paid for secrecy?

Who are the characters?

Princess Turandot (soprano)
Calaf — formerly Prince of Tartary (tenor)
Liù — a servant girl (soprano)
Timur — Calaf’s father, formerly King of Tartary (bass)
The Emperor — Turandot’s father (tenor)
Ping, Pang and Pong — three characters deriving from the old Italian commedia dell’arte tradition (very early theatre), who represent certain fixed social types

Turandot also features a large chorus, who plays a significant role in the opera and function as a key witness to much of the action.

What is the music like?

Turandot is Puccini’s most musically adventurous work. It is hair-raisingly dramatic and his scene painting genius is there right from the get go. Listen out for the opera’s striking opening: a series of five chords depicting an executioner’s axe falling…  

The score is packed full of oriental influences and exotic orchestral colours. The percussion section alone includes glockenspiel, multiple xylophones, tubular bells, a tam-tam and a set of 13 tuned Chinese gongs! There are also a handful of traditional Chinese tunes featured, including ‘Mo Li Hua’ ('Jasmine Flower'), first heard sung by the Children’s Chorus in Act I and then used as a recurring theme for the Princess throughout the piece.

However, this is still Italian opera, and Turandot features the most famous opera aria of all time — the instantly recognizable ‘Nessun dorma’ ('None shall sleep'), more thrilling heard live than you’ll have ever experienced it before! Hear it below sung by below by our own Calaf Rafael Rojas: 

What is this staging like?

This new staging of Turandot, directed by Annabel Arden, follows in the wake of our critically acclaimed Ring cycle – a dramatic performance for the concert hall, in which the full orchestra is visible and placed centre stage.

However, there are also some key set pieces. A vast chair representing Princess Turandot’s power towers over the orchestra from behind, and like her supremacy, dramatically collapses and crumples as Calaf successfully solves the riddles and claims her. Several mirrors allow for play with reflections, and props, including a skeleton wielded by the comically grotesque Ping, Pang and Pong, make an appearance!

The principal characters wear full costume (mostly monochromatic), but there is much symbolism. At the outset, Turandot appears large and intimidating with layers of costume and an impressive headdress of black and white feathers, yet throughout the opera, she loses layers like a snake shedding its skin, visibly shrinking in size as her authority diminishes. 

Who was the composer?

Turandot was written by Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924), composer of some of opera’s best loved works — Tosca, La bohème and Madama Butterfly. The libretto was created by his regular collaborators Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni.

Turandot was Puccini’s final opera, and arguably THE last great Italian opera.

A little history

Puccini first came across the story of Turandot via an Italian translation of a German play, that was in turn a version of an Italian commedia d’ell arte based on the French tale recorded by François Pétis de la Croix! As such, the opera’s plot suffers from something of a Chinese whispers effect (no pun intended)…

Ever a perfectionist, Puccini wrestled with Turandot for four years (1920-1924), but sadly, cancer intervened and he died before he could finish the piece. Composer Franco Alfano was chosen to complete the opera from the 36 pages of sketches that Puccini had left behind. It was an arduous process. Many of Puccini’s notes were difficult to decipher (including a cryptic reference to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde!) and the publishers were insistent that the music sound seamless — as if Puccini, not Alfano, had written it.  

Turandot finally premiered at La Scala, Milan on 25 April 1926, conducted by the composer’s good friend and collaborator, Arturo Toscanini. In a truly historic moment, Toscanini laid down his baton in Act III after the last note that Puccini himself had written and ended the performance. The opera was presented in full, with the Alfano ending, the following evening.

Did you know?

  • Puccini first heard the Chinese melodies that appear in Turandot (which include ‘Mo Li Hua’ and the national anthem) played by a music box, which his friend Baron Fassini Camossi, a former Italian diplomat, brought back from China as a gift.
  • There have been several other attempts to complete Turandot. In 2001, Italian composer Luciano Berio composed a new ending using Puccini’s same sketches, but expanding the musical language, and in 2008 Chinese composer Hao Weiya had a go. However, it is the Alfano ending that has stuck, and is most frequently performed in opera houses today.
  • The role of Princess Turandot is notoriously difficult, sitting very high and demanding a very powerful delivery. It became a signature role for Swedish soprano Birgit Nilsson (often thought of as THE ultimate Turandot). Hear her sing the Princess’ declamatory opening aria ‘In questa reggia’ ('In this palace').  
  • Turandot was banned in the People's Republic of China until 1998, as the government felt it portrayed China in an unfavorable light (unsurprisingly)! However, the ban was lifted in spectacular style with an enormous open air performance in the Forbidden City, the historical home of the Chinese emperors. It was directed by Zhang Yimou, who was later the mastermind behind the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Watch below: 

Turandot is sung in Italian with English titles, and lasts approximately 2 hours 15 minutes including one interval. For more info or to book tickets, visit Turandot webpage.

In a nutshell is a blog series devised by Opera North. 


Turandot production photography by Tristram Kenton
Turandot artwork © Opera North 2017
Giacomo Puccini
​Original poster for Turandot's premiere, 1926

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