Opera Bites: 'Turandot,' Puccini's last opera, rife with riddles

Friday, November 6, 2009
A scene from Puccini's "Turandot," which will be broadcast at noon Saturday at Town Plaza Cinema as part of the "Met Live in HD" series. (Ken Howard ~ Metropolitan Opera)

On Saturday, the high-definition broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera will be Giacomo Puccini's "Turandot." The performance will begin at noon at the Town Plaza Cinema.

The opera is set in the ancient Chinese city of Peking. It tells the story of the Princess Turandot who is bent upon avenging the wrongs done to her ancestress. Turandot has declared that any man who can answer the three riddles she asks him can marry her. Of course, no man has been able to do this and her suitors are beheaded.

In the first act a young man appears; he is in the process of helping an old man who is being injured by the crowds of people in the square. With the old man is a young woman named Liu. She is in love with the young man named Calaf. When Calaf sees Turandot, he falls in love with her and vows to answer the riddles.

In Act II the riddles are revealed as follows:

1. What phantom is born every night and dies the next day? (Hope)

2. What blazes like a fever when you think of great deeds but grows cold in death? (Blood)

3. What is the ice that sets you on fire? (Turandot)

Calaf answers the riddles, and Turandot is horrified that she will now be forced to marry.

In Act III Turandot is trying to discover Calaf's real name. Liu is questioned, but she refuses to tell his name. Instead, she kills herself. Calaf and Turandot are then brought together and she declares that she now knows the stranger's name -- it is love.

"Turandot" was Puccini's final opera, and he died of a heart attack before he could complete it. The premier took place April 25, 1926, at La Scala. Arturo Toscanini was the conductor. After the death of Liu in Act III, he stopped the orchestra, laid down his baton and said "The opera ends here, because at this point the maestro died." The opera was completed by Franco Alfano and after that premier, the performances were carried to their conclusion.

The role of Turandot is one of the most difficult roles in opera. It requires a soprano with great power and stamina. Russian soprano Maria Guleghina stars in this production; tenor Marcello Giordani is Calaf.

Barb Herbert of Cape Girardeau is an opera lover and host of KRCU's "Sunday Night at the Opera."

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