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Theatre / Turandot

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Believe her when she says she'll have your head on a stick.

Turandot is an opera by Giacomo Puccini. It is mostly based on a 16th-century stage play version of an ancient fairytale first set in writing by a 12th-century Persian poet.

In ancient Beijing, the beautiful ice princess Turandot executes any potential suitor who can't answer her three riddles. Nevertheless, the poor lads seem to come to the city in droves, and among them our Hero, the Unknown Prince Calaf. Upon his arrival on stage, he meets his long-lost father, the old and blind King Timur, and with him his companion, the slave girl Liu.note  Cue the last of Turandot's unhappy suitors, the Prince of Persia (no, not that one), being sentenced and beheaded. Calaf sees Turandot for the first time and immediately falls in love with her (duh). Everyone, including Turandot's three ministers, tries to talk some sense into the enamored prince, but he, of course, is persistent to win Turandot's hand no matter what. He manages to answer her riddles correctly, and theoretically, he's the winner, but Turandot still refuses to marry him. Calaf, being a prince and a gentleman, offers his conditions: if she learns his name before the sun rises, she can add his head to her palace's fancy decorations. If not, however, she must shut up and become his wife.

Turandot gleefully tells her people they must learn the Unknown Prince's name before night ends or she'll kill them all in most horrid ways imaginable. Cue Calaf, singing his famous aria "Nessun Dorma." The Beijing folks try to bribe Calaf to get himself out of there and thus save their arses, but he's a Heroic Tenor, so he won't listen. Then Timur and Liu are brought on stage, tied up, and beaten. They've been noticed speaking to Calaf at the beginning of the opera, so they're supposed to know his name. Turandot comes and mass torture is about to ensue when Liu says she alone knows his name but won't tell. She then kills herself, fearing she might give Calaf's name away under the horrible tortures. Followed by the epic Tear Jerker when everyone mourns the brave little Liu and carries her body off the stage.

At this point, Turandot suffered a minor delay in writing, as Puccini died of a sudden heart attack while recovering from chemotherapy to try and remove the laryngeal cancer he was afflicted with (he was a heavy smoker). After he gave up on the opera nine months before, he visited the conductor Arturo Toscanini and begged him: "Don't let my Turandot die!" It was left to his disciple Franco Alfano to finish the opera, although Puccini and Toscanini initially wanted the experienced opera composer Riccardo Zandonai according to his notes. But the publisher Ricordi chose Alfano because they assumed he'd be more popular with audiences and generate more money — which proved to be wrong.note  The ending is still wildly debated to this day, and some other composers, most recently Luciano Berio and Hao Weiya have written their own versions, while Alfano's own uncut ending has also been restored and recorded. American composer Janet Maguire says a shorthand version of Puccini's complete ending is actually present in his sketches and has put together an ending using those, but this has yet to be performed. On the flipside, as recently as 2017, Anton Coppola composed a decidedly somber conclusion in which Calaf is executed on the orders of Turandot.

It's a famous opera and known to be freakishly difficult to sing, especially the parts of Turandot and Calaf.

Tropes include:

  • Adaptational Heroism:
    • Liu is partially based on the character of Adelma from the original Gozzi story. Both are slave girls in love with the prince. However, whereas Liu kills herself rather than betray the prince, Adelma gladly divulges his name out of jealousy. It's actually Turandot who then has a change of heart about the whole deal.
    • Inverted with Calaf; the original story points out that Calaf is at least partially motivated to outwit Turandot in the hopes of avenging the slain suitors (and presumably preventing further deaths). Also, Calaf rejecting Adelma's advances were a bit more forgivable when compared to his operatic counterpart's treatment of Liu, since Adelma was a Bitch in Sheep's Clothing he barely knew.
  • Antagonist Title: Turandot the bloodthirsty princess.
  • Beta Couple: Liu and Timur, a non-romantic example.
  • Betty and Veronica: The demure, kind and humble Liu and Turandot, the exotic Femme Fatale.
  • The Big Damn Kiss: What Calaf gives Turandot, really more of a Forceful Kiss. Last-scene rewriter Hao Wei Ya makes it a gentle True Love's Kiss.
  • Break the Cutie: Poor, poor little Liu. To begin with, she was a slave girl in love with Prince Calaf, with absolutely zero hope that her feelings would ever be returned. Then their country was destroyed by invaders and Liu willingly went to exile with Timur. Then she met Calaf again and was cruelly tortured by Turandot's goons to learn his name. She ends up sacrificing herself to help Calaf win Turandot (remember, she loved him herself). That's harsh, Maestro Puccini.
  • Costume Porn: The page picture is a mild example of how ostentatious Turandot's costumes get. And typically, the whole company is decked out in fancy looking Oriental clothing. See here. Not to mention the heavy makeup everyone usually wears to make them look (supposedly) Asian. Zhang Yimou's production is geared to authenticity and still looks unbelievably lavish.
  • Death by Adaptation: Anton Coppola's alternative ending has Calaf condemned to execution by Turandot, just like the other princes.
  • Defrosting Ice Queen: What Turandot is after Calaf gives her a passionate Forceful Kiss. Some of the lyrics make this comparison explicit.
    • Most of the new endings are designed to give the princess a bit of time to melt and get used to the idea.
    • Subverted in Anton Coppola's 2017 ending, in which Turandot reveals Calaf's name and sentences him to death, explaining that nothing can make up for what was done to her ancestor.
  • Determinator: "Let the whole world fall, I want Turandot!". Yeah, sure.
  • Distracted by the Sexy: In the Gozzi play, Turandot unveils herself after asking the third riddle, hoping her beauty will throw off Calaf's concentration. It almost works.
  • Does Not Like Men: Turandot is willing to execute the entire population of Beijing to avoid getting married.
  • Do Not Go Gentle: Nessun Dorma has this in shades.
  • Dragon Lady: One of the classical examples of the exotic, beautiful Chinese villainess.
  • Evil Sounds Deep: Inverted. The bass Timur is a nice old guy, the baritone Ping is snarky but not evil, and the lead soprano, let's face it, is a total bitch.
  • Femme Fatale: Turandot completely. She's beautiful, exotic, mysterious and dangerous.
  • Femme Fatalons: Turandot often has them, as a noblewoman of China would have had.
  • Final Love Duet: Calaf and Turandot get one. Not very convincing, though.
  • God-Emperor's Hands Are Tied: The Emperor, who was a living god in ancient China, is legally bound to let his daughter play her deadly game of riddles.
  • God Save Us from the Queen!: Technically, the princess, but she's the one who rules.
  • Greek Chorus: The chorus. Plus the three ministers, Ping, Pang and Pong. Their gestures and manners are derived from classic Chinese opera combined with Italian commedia dell'arte stylings.
  • Happy Ending: Uncharacteristically for a Puccini opera, Turandot has one - which probably explains some of the criticism it gets from professional critics. The Berio ending, while exquisitely beautiful and using almost all of Puccini's outline, is more ambiguous.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Liu of course, who takes her own life so that she doesn't accidentally betray Calaf under torture.
  • Honor Before Reason: The Emperor knows his daughter's bloodthirsty rampage of her suitors is wrong, but he has sworn an oath, so he lets her go on with it.
  • Incredibly Long Note: LOTS of these. Both the loud and soft varieties. Two famous portrayers of the roles of Turandot and Calaf, Birgit Nilsson and Franco Corelli, used to have friendly competitions over who could hold the famous High C the longest in their synchronised phrase in Act 2. Some sopranos playing Liu hold out a very long soft high B-flat in the phrase "m'hai sorriso" ("you smiled at me," explaining why she devotes herself to caring for Timur). Anna Moffo was known for this.
  • "I Want" Song: "Nessun Dorma", though it's more like an "I'll Have" Song.
  • Karma Houdini: Turandot has a fancy for torture (as her three ministers tell us), she has executed 27 suitors in the past 3 years (and probably many more people in the past) and has driven a loving, caring and innocent girl to suicide. And what does she get in the end? A Happy Marriage, no less. Puccini struggled with the ending over this paradox, a major reason for Luciano Berio's changes:
    I believe that Turandot was left unfinished not because of Puccini's death but because he was betrayed by an intractable libretto: this oriental tale that reaches a 'happy end' is of indescribable vulgarity, and that's what gave Puccini problems.
  • Large Ham: You have to be this to pull off Turandot. Or, for that matter, Calaf.
  • Love Triangle: Calaf, Turandot, Liu.
  • Lyrical Dissonance: "Nessun Dorma" is one of the most beautiful and famous arias in all of opera. It's also a song about the fact that nobody in Beijing is sleeping that night because the entire population of the city will be massacred in the morning if they don't find out Calaf's name. The chorus of women that can be heard in the distance seals this:
    No one will know his name,
    and we will have to, alas, die, die!
  • Maybe Ever After: Luciano Berio's ending makes Calaf and Turandot's love more ambiguous.
  • Messianic Archetype: Liu. Often lampshaded with a Crucified Hero Shot in Act 3.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: Calaf has already passed the tests and won the princess's hand in marriage. There really is no reason to offer her an extra chance and all it accomplishes is to put every single man, woman and child in Beijing in mortal peril and leads directly to Liu's death.
    • His rationale is that Turandot has begged him not to take her by force, as happened to her ancestor.
  • Please Wake Up: Timur to Liu. It hurts.
  • Protagonist-Centered Morality: Calaf's fixation with getting Turandot is supposed to be romantic, but the guy is willing to let an entire city die in order to get her.
  • Public Domain Soundtrack: Just how many times have you heard this tune?
  • Real-Place Background: Turandot at the Forbidden City might qualify.
  • Riddle for the Ages: What did Puccini intend for the opera's ending? Because of combined Died During Production and Executive Meddling, we would never know for sure.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: Turandot keeps beheading men because eons ago some foreign jerk violated and killed her great-great-great-grandmother.
    • Specifically, the foreign jerks were Tartars — and that's what Calaf is.
  • Scenery Porn: Opera directors can get a bit carried away with Turandot's set design. See here and here.
  • Scratchy-Voiced Senior: The score calls for Turandot's father, the Emperor, to be played by a character tenor "with the weary voice of a decrepit old man."
  • Show Stopper: Puccini tried to avert this with "Nessun Dorma," which, in the score (and on complete audio recordings) runs right into the next scene without a break. In the theatre, the audience always applauds and stops the show anyway.
  • Tenor Boy: Though of a more manly variety than usual.
  • These Questions Three...: Turandot's challenge to her suitors; death is the penalty for not answering correctly.
  • Those Three Guys: Ping, Pang, Pong.
  • Too Good for This Sinful Earth: Liu.
  • Trapped in Villainy: Ping, Pang and Pong detest the fact that they have to implement Turandot's bloodthirsty decrees, and spend an entire song longing for the things they wish they could be doing instead of presiding over an endless string of executions.
  • Villainous BSoD: Turandot gets one after seeing Liu kill herself.
  • Wham Shot:
    • By Liu as played by Barbara Frittoli in Turandot at the Forbidden City. If you know the story, you're aware that she kills herself, but even the most jaded viewer might be shocked at her badass move. Most Lius grab a dagger from one of the guards behind them and stab themselves in the breast or stomach. In this production, having finished her plea to Turandot, she lunges forward, snatches a long hairpinnote  from the Princess' coiffure, and stabs herself in the throat.
    • Edda Moser used to kill herself on the run, falling dead in midstride and sliding clear across the stage to land at Calaf's feet. She moved so fast it took the audience a second or two to realize what they'd seen.