First Performed: 1926
Setting: Ancient China, Peking
In a crowded quarter nestled near the Forbidden City, a man pronounces an edict, saying that any prince wanting to marry Princess Turandot will first need to answer three riddles. If he answers all three correctly, he will marry Turandot. If he fails, he will die. The Prince of Persia is her latest suitor. His fate was sealed prior to the opera's opening events; he failed to answer Princess Turnadot's riddles and now must die at moonrise. Citizens within the busy quarter, eager for bloodshed and entertainment, chant and urge the executioner to carry out his dark deed. In the midst of the hustle and bustle of the mob, a slave girl named Liu, suddenly cries for help when her elderly master, Timur, is pushed to the ground. She fears Timur is in danger of being trampled to death. Out of the shadows comes a strapping young man to aid them. He instantly recognizes Timur as his long-lost father, the deposed king of Tartary, which is now occupied by Chinese rulers. Afraid for his own life, Prince Calaf tells Timur to never say his name out loud. Both men are still running from the enemies who vanquished them from their own kingdom. Timur tells Prince Calaf that Liu has been his only faithful servant. When Prince Calaf asks her why, she tells him it was because Calaf once smiled upon her many years ago.
Moments later, the moon appears in the sky, and the Prince of Persia is brought to the place of his execution. The crowd falls deathly silent. Taken aback by his good looks and kind demeanor, the crowd, along with Prince Calaf, shouts for compassion and pleas for sparing the young man's life. Princess Turandot arrives, and unaffected by their cries, orders his execution with a swift and precise hand gesture. Price Calaf, laying eyes on the princess for the first time, falls completely head over heels for her. As if no longer aware of the current situation, he proclaims his love for the princess and shouts her name three times as the Prince of Persia is heard giving his last cry before he is beheaded.
Set in his heart, Prince Calaf determines to win Princess Turandot as his bride. As is customary for each potential suitor, Prince Calaf rushes to the ceremonial gong to signal his entry into the "contest." Three of Turandot's ministers (Ping, Pong, and Pang) aware of this new suitor, try to convince him to change his mind. They do not want any more blood to be spilled. Timur and Liu also try to change Prince Calaf's mind. Liu is the only one that seems to get through to Prince Calaf. She confesses her love for him, but even that is not enough to stop Prince Calaf. He bangs the gong and Turandot accepts his challenge.
Wishing to be free of Princess Turandot's bloody reign, Ping, Pang, and Pong are in their quarters before sunrise reminiscing and telling stories of their past lives. They also share stories of Princess Turandot's previous (and unfortunate) suitors. Their time is cut short, however, as the palace trumpets sound. Princess Turandot's ceremony is about to begin. The townspeople gather under the warm morning sun to witness Prince Calaf attempt the impossible. Before Princess Turandot appears, her father is sitting on the throne. Even he pleas to Prince Calaf to walk away from the challenge. Again, Calaf refuses. Princess Turandot appears and begins telling a story of her ancestor, Princess Lou-Ling. Lou-Ling was brutally murdered by a conquering prince. To avenge her death, Turandot explains she has turned against all men, and no man shall ever possess her. Her first riddle is told:
"What is born each night and dies at dawn?"
"Hope!" Prince Calaf declares. Correct.
Turadot, unaffected, asks her second riddle:
"What flickers red and warm like a flame, yet is not fire?"
"Blood." Calaf is right again. This time, the princess becomes unnerved. No suitor has proceeded this far. She asks her third riddle:
"What is like ice yet burns?"
Silence falls over the crowd. A few moments later, Calaf shouts, "Turandot!" He is right again. The crowd cheers and congratulates Calaf, thankful his life was not lost and future lives were saved. Princess Turandot suddenly becomes aware of her reality and pleads with her father to spare her marriage to Prince Calaf, some stranger. Her father refuses. Prince Calaf, in order to appease her, gives her a riddle of his own. If she answers correctly, he dies. If she answers incorrectly, she has to marry him. She accepts the new deal. The riddle he asks: "What is his name?" She has until dawn.
That evening, within the palace garden, Calaf hears the decree that no one in Peking will sleep until Turandot learns the name of her suitor. If she does not learn his name, everyone in the city will be killed. Calaf sings the famous aria, Nessun Dorma (Nobody shall sleep). The three ministers try to bribe Calaf to withdraw his bargain, but again, they are unsuccessful. Mobs take hold of Calaf and threaten him with daggers, and Liu and Timur are dragged in by soldiers. Calaf tries to convince the mob that only he knows his name. When Turandot comes in, Liu, faithful to Timur, cries out that only she knows the stranger's name. Turandot orders her to be tortured, but Liu refuses to tell the secret. Impressed by Liu's loyalty, Turandot asks Liu how she is able to remain silent. "Love," answers Liu. Turandot spitefully orders even harsher punishment. At that moment, fearing Calaf may intervene and get himself killed, Liu grabs one of the soldier's daggers and kills herself. Timur and the crowd follow Liu's body as it is carried away. The only people that remain is Calaf and Turandot. He calls her the Princess of Death, yet forcefully kisses her. Turandot begins to weep, for that was the first time she has ever been kissed. Calaf then tells her his true name.
With Calaf sitting on the throne, Turandot approaches and turns around to the crowd. She tells them that she has learned the stranger's name: "Love."