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Home | Turandot

Opera Background

ComposerGiacomo Puccini
LibrettistGiuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni
Language Italian
Date of PremierApril 25, 1926
Number of ActsThree
Music Length Two Hours, Five Minutes

Turandot takes places in Ancient China. The opera’s first aria “Popolo di Pechino!” – “People of Peking!” suggest that the story takes place in Peking (or Beijing).

Turandot is Giacomo Puccini’s final opera, which he began work on in March 1920, but was was unfinished at the time of his death. It was completed by Franco Alfano in 1926.

Quick Answers

What is Puccini’s opera Turandot about?

Turandot is about the Prince of Tartary (Calaf) falling in love with a Chinese Princess (Turandot). To win the right to wed her, he must answer riddles, which if failed will lead to his execution.

Where does Turandot take place?

Turandot takes place in Ancient Beijing, China

What are the three riddles in Turandot?

  1. What is born each night and dies each dawn?  – Hope.
  2. What flickers red and warm like a flame, but is not fire? – Blood.
  3. What is ice which gives you fire and which your fire freezes still more? – Turandot


  • Calaf, Prince of Tartary (tenor)
  • Timur, his father, the deposed King of Tartary (bass)
  • Liu, Timur’s servent girl (soprano)
  • Turandot, a princess (soprano)
  • Emperor Altoum, her father (tenor)
  • Ping, Lord Chancellor (baritone)
  • Pang, Majordomo (tenor)
  • Pong, Head chef of the Imperial Kitchen (tenor)
  • A Mandarin (Baritone)

Musical Numbers

Musical Numbers – Act 1

  • “Popolo di Pechino!” (Aria): A Mandarin announces the law of the land
  •  “Indietro, cani!” (Trio): Timur, Liu, and Calaf reunite
  •  “O giovinetto!”: The crowd pleads for the Prince of Persia’s life
  • “Fermo, che fai?”: Ping, Pang, and Pong urge Calaf to refrain from taking Turandot’s challenge
  • “Signore, ascolta!”: Liu urges Calaf to refrain from taking Turandot’s challenge
  • “Non piangere, Liù”: Calaf tells Liu to take care of his father if he should fail
  • “Ah! Per l’ultima volta!”: Ping, Pang, Pong, Timur and Liu try to stop Calaf one last time

Musical Numbers – Act 2

  • “Ola, Pang!” (Trio): Ping, Pang, and Pong speak of their work in the palace
  • “Ho una casa nell’Honan” (Trio): Ping, Pang, and Pong reminisce on peaceful memories
  • “Un giuramento atroce” (Aria): Emperor Altoum sings of the atrocious law set by his daughter
  • “In questa reggia” (Aria): Turandot explains the history of her land and law
  •  “Figlio del cielo“: Turnadot begs her father not to let Calaf wed her

Musical Numbers – Act 3

  • “Nessun dorma” (Aria): Calaf sings of his imminent victory as he waits for sunrise
  • “Tu che di gel sei cinta”: Liu lectures Turandot on love
  • “Principessa di morte” (Duet): Calaf reprimands Turandot for her cruelty
  •  “Del primo pianto” (Duet): Calaf puts his life in Turandot’s hands
  • “Diecimila anni al nostro Imperatore!”: Turandot claims to know Calaf’s name and that they are in love

Turandot Full Synopsis

Full Synopsis – Act 1

The curtain opens and a Mandarin (a scholar in the history of China) announces the law to the people of Peking (“Popolo di Pechino!” – “People of Peking!”). He announces that anybody that wishes to marry Princess Turandot must speak the answer to three riddles. If a suitor answers incorrectly, the punishment is death. The Mandarin goes on to explain that the Prince of Persia has just failed to answer the riddles, and is sentenced to death.

Popolo di Pekino performed by Anton Eriksson at Swedish Royal Opera in Stockholm, 2013

A crowd gathers as guards scramble to push them away. Caught up in the pushing is a seemingly blind old man (Timur), causing his companion (Liu) to cry out. The old man is helped up on his feet by another man in the crowd, Calaf, who immediately recognizes the old man as his long-lost father. Timur was a King of Tartary (a blanket term for a vast part of northern Asia) who was forcefully removed from office. As the emperor had conquered the old King, the Prince Calaf does not dare speak the King’s name in case he is overheard. Timur reveals that Liu is the only servant who has remained loyal to him. When Calaf asks why, she tells him that long ago in the palace, Calaf had smiled at her. (“Indietro, cani!” – “Back, dogs!”)

” Indietro, cani!” on a 1998 recorded album

Once the moon rises, it is time for the Prince of Persia to be executed. As the Prince is marched out, the crowd and our group of three (Calaf, Timur, and Liu) begin to plead for his life (“O giovinetto!” – “O youth!”).

1972 recording of “O giovinetto!”

Turandot, the Chinese princess appears, and with one gesture defies the crowd and signals to the guards to continue with the execution. Calaf, seeing Princess Turandot for the first time, is completely enamored, and falls in immediate love. Calaf calls out Turandot’s name, followed by the Prince of Persia pleading for his life, right before he is beheaded.

Calaf heads for the gong – which is hit three times signals a suitor ready to answer Turandot’s three riddles – before three ministers (Ping, Pang, and Pong) appear to speak to him. They begin to urge Calaf to return to his country, and not fall victim to another beheading (“Fermo, che fai?” “Stop, what are you doing?”).

“Fermo! Che fai?” performed by the Metropolitan Opera in 2016

Timur and Liu continue to urge Calaf to refrain from banging the gong. Liu, who is in love with Calaf, begins to passionately plead Calaf to not attempt to solve the riddles. (“Signore, ascolta!” – “Sir, Listen!”)

“Signore, ascolta” performed by Leona Mitchell in 1988

Calaf is moved by Liu’s words, but continues with his plan of hitting the gong. Calaf responds to Liu by asking her to take care of his father if he is unable to answer the riddles. (“Non piangere, Liù” – “Do not cry, Liù”)

“Non piangere liu” performed by Placido Domingo in New York, 1988

Ping, Pang, Pong, Timur, and Liu plead once more for Calaf to stop (“Ah! Per l’ultima volta!” – “Ah! For the last time!”). But this is in vain. Calaf yells out Turandot’s name three times, with the crowd declaring they are already digging his grave. Calf rushes to the gong in front of the palace, and prominently strikes it three times. This spurs the Princesses’ entrance (theme originally sampled from Chinese folk song “Jasmine Flower”). The Princess appears and accepts Calaf’s challenge.

“Ah! Per l’ultima volta!” On a 1982 recording

Full Synopsis – Act 2

Act 2 opens with Ping, Pang, and Pong talking about palace events, and whether they should begin planning for a wedding, or a funeral (“Ola, Pang!”)

“Ola! Pang” and “Ho una casa nell’Honan” performed in Milan

Lamenting over their work, Ping begins to reflect on his house in Henan, with a picturesque lake surrounded by bamboo. Pang, and Pong join in, and together share memories of places far from the palace “Ho una casa nell’Honan” – “I have a house in Honan”. They then return to speaking of the matter at hand, and the trumpet sounds to gather in the courtyard.

In the courtyard of the palace, Turandot’s father, the emperor, takes his place at the throne. Calaf appears, and the emperor tries to convince Calaf to take his challenge back, claiming he is a victim of this law as well and has seen enough blood (“Un giuramento atroce” – “An atrocious oath”.)

“Un giuramento atroce” performed at the Metropolitan Opera in 1988

Turandot then appears, and explains why she shall never be in possession of a man. She explains an ancestor (Princess Lo-u-Ling) ruled in silence and joy until she was raped and murdered by a foreign prince, Turandot, believing Lo-u-Ling lives in her will exact her revenge by never letting a man wed her. (“In questa reggia” – “In this palace”). She urges the prince to walk away, but Calaf refuses.

“In questa reggia” performed by Christine Goerke at the Metropolitan opera in 2019

The Princess goes on to her first riddle “Straniero, ascolta!” – (“What is born each night and dies each dawn?”) The Prince answers Speranza – “Hope.” He is correct.

The unwavering Princess gives her second riddle (“Guizza al pari di fiamma” – “What flickers red and warm like a flame, but is not fire?”) The Prince takes a moment to think, and replies Sangue – “Blood”. Turandot begins to get nervous. The crowd goes wild for the Prince, making Turandot’s all the angrier. She then presents her third riddle (“Gelo che ti da foco” – “What is ice which gives you fire and which your fire freezes still more?”). Calaf yells, “It is Turandot! Turandot!”. He has answered all three riddles correctly.

Turandot falls at the feet of her father, begging him not to allow his daughter to wed the foreigner. The emperor holds that the oath is sacred, and that she must go through with it (“Figlio del cielo” – “Son of the Sky”).

“Figlio del Cielo” performed at the Vienna State Opera, 1983

As Turandot pleads Calaf proclaims he is willing to give her one possible escape: if she can learn his name before sunrise, then he will die at dawn. Turandot accepts his challenge, with the Emperor hoping this prince will become his son.

Full Synopsis – Act 3

Act 3 opens in the Palace gardens, where it is announced that Turandot has proclaimed that nobody shall sleep in Peking that night. The prince’s name must be discovered, or death will come to all  (“Cosi comanda Turandot” – “This is how Turandot commands”).

“Cosi comanda Turandot” on a 1982 recording

Calaf, waiting for dawn in the garden, then starts to sing of his anticipatory victory (“Nessun Dorma” – “Let no one sleep!”)

“Nessun Dorma” performed by Luciano Pavarotti in 1979

Ping, Pang, and Pong effortlessly begin to offer Calaf riches and women, to which he refuses (“Tu che guardi le stelle” – “You who look at the stars”). Soldiers then drag Timur and Liu in, who were seen talking to Calaf, and therefore surely know his name. Calaf pretends he knows nothing of the two. The guards begin to beat Timur, and finally Liu proclaims only she knows the Princes name, but she will not tell it.

Liu proceeds to get tortured for the name, but she does not reveal Calaf’s name. Turandot, shocked at the resolve of the girl asks what gave her the strength to take so much, to which Liu replies (“Principessa, amore!” – “Love, Princess”). As Liu continues to be tortured, she speaks directly at Turandot, telling her that her too will someday learn the joy of love (“Tu che di gel sei cinta” – “You who are encircled by ice”).

“Tu che di gel sei cinta” performed by Leona Mitchell

Having spoken, Liu then takes a dagger from a soldier’s belt and stabs herself. The crowd yells for her to call out Calaf’s name as Liu staggers to Calaf and falls in his arms to her death. Timur cries out in anguish, warning that the gods will be offended, and the crowd falls silent. Everybody leaves as they carry Liu’s body out, leaving Calaf and Turandot alone.

Calaf reproaches Turandot, but then pulls her in to kiss her, to which she is reluctant. (“Principessa di morte” – “Princess of Death”)

“Principessa di morte” performed in 1983

Turnadot, who was first repulsed by the kisses of Calaf, begins to give in and falls into his embrace. She admits that she had always both loved and hated him. She begs Calaf to take no more, and to leave. Calaf then places his fate into Turandot’s hands, and tells her his full name, “Calaf, son of Timur”. leaving her to decide whether to end his life or marry him (“Del primo pianto”. – “Of the first cry”)

“Del Primo Piango” performed by CRISTINA PIPERNO

In the following scene, Turandot and Calaf near the Emperor’s throne. She declares to the crows that she knows the Prince’s name (“Diecimila anni al nostro Imperatore!” – “It is … love!”) The crowd applauds the two new lovers (“O sole! Vita! Eternità”)