Let's Talk Turandot!


Or not. Really. Have you ever looked at the plots of the operas that some of our most beloved arias come from? I had cause to do just that the other day while boning up on some music I reference in my current novel. (In case you missed it, here's another opera post I had cause to write while musing for my novel...)

Jonas Kaufmann singing Nessun Dorma with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus at The Last Night of the Proms in 2015. 

Nessun Dorma. The song is sung in the Third Act of Puccini’s opera, Turandot, by Calaf, the tenor. It is a magnificent song! Rapturous. Sonorous. Epic. (Although, in the course of my research, I did learn that the penultimate B note sung at the end, which every tenor and his brother hold for as long as possible, was actually written to be a short note by Puccini. How’s that for irony? The one thing that is most known about that song wasn’t actually intended to be that way.) 

However, when reading through the song’s translation, I became curious as to its contextual meaning. Down the rabbit hole I went, and what I found was just as curious and disturbing as the things poor little Alice encountered in her Wonderland. 

Set in Peking, Turandot is a Chinese princess, the embodied re-incarnation of her ancestress, a former Chinese princess, Lo-u-Ling, whose kingdom was invaded by a prince who raped and killed her in the process. Lo-u-Ling’s spirit is bent on vengeance for the treatment she suffered at the hands of a man. Therefore, Turandot has set an impossible task before her suitors. She will only marry a man of royal blood who correctly answers the three riddles she sets before him. However, if he fails to answer one of the riddles correctly, he must forfeit his life. (Now, I don’t know about you, but this would be a major turn off for me. Marry a psycho or die… or just don’t participate. Hmm…that’s a difficult one there.)

The opera opens when Turandot is sentencing a Persian prince to execution because he failed to answer one of her riddles correctly. At the execution, you meet Calaf, a prince of Tartary, his father, the exiled and blind king of Tartary, and their faithful female servant, Liu, who is secretly in love with Calaf. Overcome by Turandot’s beauty, Calaf disregards the pleas of his father and Liu and sounds the gong, announcing himself as the next suitor to try for Turandot’s hand. Calaf correctly answers every riddle posed but Turandot. She becomes furious. In a moment of soft-heartedness (or stupidity, take your pick), Calaf tells Turandot that he will give her one chance to get out of their marriage. He will give her one night to try and guess his name. If she can guess his name by dawn, he will gladly surrender himself to death for her. If she cannot, then they must marry. 

Calaf is perfectly confident that he will win this. As a matter of fact, that penultimate B at the end of Nessun Dorma, comes in the middle of the word vin-CER’-o, which means, quite literally, I will win. 

However, things with Turandot can’t just be straightforward or simple or non-psychotic, for that matter. Rather than try and figure out his name, or perhaps end the cycle of senseless violence and death and just marry this man who can clearly tolerate her insanity, Turandot makes an edict. She says, none shall sleep this night until the unknown prince’s name is discovered. I wish she could just leave it at that, but megalomaniacs rarely can leave well enough alone. Turandot adds one final caveat. If she doesn’t discover this suitor’s name by dawn, then everyone in her kingdom will be put to death. 

That’s right. You read that correctly. If she doesn’t get her way, then she’s going to kill every last subject in her kingdom. Truly, that inspires loyalty. And love. 

Nessun Dorma actually means None shall sleep. Guess where this song is sung. That’s right. The song begins directly after Turandot’s edict. And Calaf, crazy with love (that’s the only way I can sanction his actions), picks up where Turandot leaves off, and sings, Nessun Dorma, declaring that no one will ever discover his name. No one. To the poor people of Peking, this declaration is more threat than promise, and while the music and impeccable singing may inspire the audience, if Turandot’s subjects were truly real, they would be gripped with terror for their lives. In fact, when the chorus chimes in in the middle of Calaf’s song, they are not excited and happy. Rather, they declare, “No one will know his name and we must, alas, die.” (It sounds better in Italian.)

Calaf, being the insensitive jerk that he is, completely disregards this and goes on to promise Turandot’s kingdom that he will be victorious. I can just hear the collective response of, Oh, great. We’re going to die. And he’s so happy about it, too. Fabulous. (Peasants can never catch a break.)
While Calaf is singing, Turandot is sweeping through her country to find anyone who knows his name. Everyone remains silent. Even Calaf’s father keeps his mouth shut. Liu, however, so in love with Calaf she’s gone nuts, tells Turandot that she knows his name but that she’ll never tell her what it is. So, Turandot does the only thing a girl can do in such an untenable situation. She tortures Liu. And Calaf LETS HER. He sits back and lets Turandot torture Liu until she can’t take it any long and she seizes a dagger and kills herself. So, Liu dies to keep Calaf’s name a secret. Because she loves Calaf. Even though she didn’t really have to say anything in the first place. (Why did she say anything? I mean, really. Yes, it would suck to watch the one you love marry another, especially when that other is a certifiable murderess, but being tortured until you kill yourself can’t possibly be the only other option out there.)

The dawn comes and Turandot has failed to discover Calaf’s name, even though she did get a chance to slake her bloodlust with Liu. What does Calaf do when he finds out about Liu’s noble but dumb sacrifice? Well, he does what any other noble hearted man would do, he reproaches Turandot. Yes, he tells her she’s been a naughty wench and then kisses her passionately, like you do. And some kiss it must have been for it melts her cold, cold heart and she declares that she loved him from the first moment she saw him. (This smacks of insincerity to me, but I’ve been struggling with her all along. I mean, I just can’t seem to focus on this love story with the fate of a nation hanging in the balance. Will she mass kill the people of Peking?) 

At Turandot’s confession of love, Calaf further loses whatever was left of his compromised mind and tells her his name and declares that he will die for her. (At this point, honestly, I was hoping he would just die. Those poor people of Peking…)

There is a moment of uncertainty. What will Turandot do? (If past precedent is anything to judge by, she could do some very, very terrible things.) 

Turandot turns to the assembly and makes a potent declaration. She knows his name. (Peking just heaved a collective sigh of relief.) Yes, Turandot does know the prince’s name. His name is Love. (And nothing about this opera conveys the actions I would associate with love. Nothing.)

But, to paraphrase the witty Kim Thompson from her fabulous video, All the Great Operas in 10 Minutes, that’s Turandot. Yep, that’s all you need to know. Possession. Murder. Execution. Torture. Suicide. Potential Mass Genocide. 

As Thompson said, (I just have to quote her. I can’t possibly say it better), “That’s it. That’s opera. Nothing else you need to know. Just a lot of people in costumes falling in love and dying… Oh, except for the music. There’s singing, too. See they don't actual say anything, so they sing everything. Lots of music. Yep. Some of it’s kinda nice, too, if you like that kind of thing.”

Have you ever found yourself so caught up in the rapture of the music of an opera, or a musical, or a movie with a fantastic soundtrack, that you've been able to overlook how horrid the plot is? 

Kim Thompson's superbly narrated, hilarious short- All the Great Operas in 10 Minutes. Enjoy! It's a worthy, hysterical watch.