A square in front of the imperial palace, in ancient China, in legendary times. A court official of high standing reads a proclamation which states that the Princess Turandot, daughter of the Emperor Altoum, shall marry the first man of royal blood who solves three riddles set by her. Any suitor who fails to guess the answers will be beheaded. The heads of many unsuccessful suitors are already impaled on poles erected on the palace walls. That night at moonrise, the latest unfortunate victim, the Prince of Persia, will be executed.
The crowd of people in the square is greatly excited by the proclamation. Some of them try to force their way to the palace to call out the chief executioner Pu Tin-pao. They are roughly handled by the guards and in the confused struggle a blind old man is knocked to the ground. He is Timur, the banished King of Tartary, who is accompanied by the faithful slave-girl Liu. A young man comes forward to help them, and he recognizes the old king as his long lost father. The young man is Calaf, he too being pursued by the enemy who had usurped his father’s throne. The old king describes Liu’s care and affection, and Calaf asks her why she has chosen to share so much suffering. Liu answers that it is because one day, at the palace, Calaf smiled at her.
Meanwhile, the crowd watch with excitement the executioner’s assistants sharpening a number of scimitar blades on the grindstone. The blades are then taken away for the executioner to choose for use later that night. The crowd now invokes the moon to rise so that the execution can take place. Soon the latest victim, the Prince of Persia, appears and the mood of the crowd turns to pity. They appeal to the Princess for mercy, while Calaf cries out his wish to see her so that he may curse her for her cruelty. Turandot at last appears. With one decisive gesture, she orders the executioner to proceed. The crowd follows the procession, leaving Calaf, Timur and Liu alone in the square.
At his first sight of the cold and beautiful Turandot, Calaf falls madly in love. He is eager to strike the great gong to announce himself as the next suitor, but is stopped by the sudden appearance of the three ministers of the court: Ping, the Grand Chancellor; Pang, the General Purveyor; and Pong, the Royal Cook. These three try to dissuade Calaf from gambling his own head. Timur reminds him that no one has succeeded in solving the riddles. Liu too adds her moving appeal to Calaf not to let his father die in exile and make her lose the memory of his smile. Calaf responds by asking Liu to look after her old master should adverse fate befall him. Calling Turandot’s name, he strikes the gong.
Ping, Pang and Pong meet to lament the state of affairs in the empire and especially in the imperial city, where beheadings are becoming more and more frequent. They discuss preparations for the wedding should the new suitor win, and for the funeral should he lose. They indulge in nostalgic longing for a peaceful life in their native country instead of wasting time and talent on the sacred books. They even imagine Turandot conquered by love and enjoying nuptial happiness, thus restoring peace and dignity to great China; but they soon realize that this is day-dreaming. So the three ministers prepare themselves for the great ceremony and trial of the riddles.
The court assembles, watched by the crowd. Emperor Altoum makes an effort to dissuade Calaf, but the young prince repeatedly demands the right to face his test. Turandot herself appears in unbelievable magnificence. She tells her audience how ages ago an ancestress of hers was carried off by the Prince of an invading tribe and ravished. In revenge, she has vowed to take the life of any man who dares to desire her. Reminding Calaf that no one will ever possess her, Turandot asks the three riddles, one by one. Each time, Calaf solves the problem successfully, giving the answers: hope, blood, and Turandot. The entire court and crowd burst into joyous song and jubilation.
Defeated, Turandot pleads with her father not to give her to the stranger. The emperor insists on keeping the sacred oath, and his sentiment is echoed by all those present. Reassuring the princess that he only wants her as a bride in love, Calaf offers to release her from the oath and to die at her hand if before dawn she can discover his name. The emperor accepts this offer and hopes that by sunrise, he can call the stranger his son.
Teams of heralds are going around the imperial city proclaiming Turandot’s royal command that no one must sleep that night. Under pain of death, the stranger’s name must be revealed before morning. Waiting outside the palace, Calaf asks the night to vanish and the stars to extinguish, for he is certain of his victory at dawn.
The three ministers and the crowd approach Calaf with bribes of beautiful girls, treasures and power in distant kingdoms in exchange for his immediate departure or his name. Calaf wants nothing but Turandot. At that moment, the guards brought in Timur and Liu. Turandot also appears and orders that the old man be made to speak. Liu then comes forward to claim that she alone knows the stranger’s name; but it is her greatest joy to keep it secret. When asked by Turandot what gives her the strength to resist even torture, Liu explains that it is love which is the supreme gift she can offer to her young master. She then seizes a dagger and kills herself. Liu’s death is deeply mourned by Timur, and the saddened crowd follow her body as it is carried off.*
Left alone, Calaf reproaches Turandot for her cruelty; but tells her that her coldness is false. He tears off her veil and kisses her passionately. Stunned and defeated, Turandot admits that she both loves and fears Calaf, and begs him to go. The young man instead puts his own life in her hands, announcing that his name is Calaf, son of Timur.
Dawn approaches. Turandot triumphantly orders Calaf to face the court and the people with her. Before Emperor Altoum, she declares that she has discovered the stranger’s name. And his name is Love!
The crowd express their great joy in a hymn to love.
*When Puccini died on 29 November 1924, he had written all the music of Turandot, including full orchestration, up to the end of the scene of Liu’s death. He left 36 pages of sketches for the remaining scenes of the opera with many annotations regarding his musical intentions and orchestration. Franco Alfano, at that time Director of the Turin Conservatory of Music, was commissioned to complete the opera based on these sketches. The Alfano version was then revised for performance in accordance with the wishes of the first conductor of the work, Arturo Toscanini. This revised version is the generally available published version, which is being used for the first and third performances of the present production.
In 2001, the House of Ricordi, Puccini’s publisher, commissioned a new ending by the distinguished contemporary composer Luciano Berio, President and Director of the National Academy Santa Cecilia of Rome. This new ending was completed in 2002 and first performed in Los Angeles and Amsterdam. It is being presented in the second and final performances of this Musica Viva production.