Turandot was Puccini’s last opera; in fact, it was left unfinished at his death in 1924. It departs from the verismo conventions of his other major operas, taking us instead into a mythic Far East where a cruel princess has set a deadly trap for the many suitors who come seeking her hand. It is generally considered one of Puccini’s most successful operas, and with good reason, for it is full of splendid music.
The basic scenario is this: Princess Turandot is determined not to marry, and to each potential suitor who approaches her she proposes three riddles; failure to answer correctly results in death. Enter the young Prince of Tartary who, catching a glimpse of Turandot, falls in love and resolves to seek her hand.
Our first “great moment” is the Act I aria Signore, ascolta! (“Sir, listen!”). Sung by the Prince’s servant-girl Liu, it is her plea that he not attempt to answer the riddles. Liu is secretly in love with the Prince, and for her the Prince’s plan is disastrous on all counts: if he succeeds he marries Turandot, and if he fails he dies. The aria is sung here by the wonderful Montserrat Caballé, in a concert performance that, alas, has no subtitles:
The Prince responds immediately with Non piangere, Liu (“Do not cry, Liu”) in which he reassures her, and asks that she look after his aging father if he (The Prince) should fail to answer the riddles correctly. Together these two arias are a great one-two punch, the likes of which one does not encounter very often. (Another great example of back-to-back hits is the combination of Che gelida manina and Si, mi chiamano Mimi in La bohème.) The aria is sung here by Jose Carreras, with English subtitles and poor video quality:
In Act II we are treated to In questa reggia (“In this kingdom”), Turandot’s first big aria. In it she explains why she sets the deadly riddles for her potential suitors: her ancestor, Princess Lo-u-Ling, was forcibly married to a foreign prince, and for this insult she has herself vowed revenge upon foreign princes, one and all. This motive is, admittedly, either not very noble or not very intelligent, but the music in which it is expressed is gorgeous. Here we have Birgit Nilsson in a 1968 performance, senza subtitles:
Act III brings us an aria that has a fair claim to being the most famous in all of opera: Nessun dorma (“No-one shall sleep”). It is a favourite of tenors the world over, from rotund Italians to broken-toothed Englishman to frizzy-haired rockers, and, admittedly, there is something genuinely spine-tingling about its climax, rising to that stupendous threefold “Vincero!“. By this point in the story the Prince has successfully answered Turandot’s riddles (!), but she, being still unwilling to marry him, has been offered a way out: if she can guess the Prince’s name then he will submit to death; otherwise she must relent and marry him. He sings this aria in the early morning hours of the day she is to deliver her answer, anticipating his victory. Here is Placido Domingo, with English subtitles:
(Another terrific YouTube performance of this aria is by Giuseppe di Stefano, which can be seen here.)
For a final great moment, consider Liu’s Act III aria Tu che di gel sei cinta (“You who are begirdled by ice”). She sings to Turandot, chastising her for her coldness, and foretelling that she too will one day know the power of love. This is Liu’s “suicide aria”; she stabs herself when she’s done. (Turandot, having discovered that Liu knows the Prince, is putting the screws to her in order to force her to divulge his name. Liu kills herself to avoid betraying him.) The singer here is Leona Mitchell, and the aria lasts about 2-1/2 minutes:
It would seem that the Prince’s wooing has done little to thaw Turandot’s icy heart, but following Liu’s death he takes the risk of kissing her, and she warms to his embrace. She agrees to marry him, and thus the opera comes to what is supposed to be a happy finish, though opinions might justly vary as to whether the happiness will outlast the honeymoon.