Peking, in legendary times. The Princess Turandot, daughter of the Emperor Altoum, has sworn a sacred vow that she will marry only a suitor of noble birth who is able to solve her three enigmas; if he fails, he will forfeit his life.
A square in front of the Imperial Palace.
It is sunset. At the rise of the curtain, a large crowd is assembled to hear a Mandarin pronounce the death sentence on a Persian Prince who has lost his battle of wits against Turandot. Among the crowd is Timur (bass), the deposed King of Tartary, and his faithful companion, the slave-girl Liù (soprano), who had fled from their country after its invasion by the Chinese Emperor. Among the dense crowd they presently discover Calaf (tenor), the son of Timur, whom they had thought killed in battle. But they have to suppress their joy at meeting him because no one in Peking is to know the name and origin of the young Prince, an enemy fugitive. Darkness falls and a sad procession passes by, leading the Persian Prince to the scaffold. Moved by this sight, the crowd clamors for mercy and Calaf curses Turandot for her cruelty. The Princess appears on the balcony for a brief moment and with a silent, imperious gesture sends the Persian suitor to his death by execution. Calaf is spellbound by her beauty and resolves to win her heart. Suddenly there appear three Courtiers—Ping (baritone), Pang (tenor) and Pong (tenor)-attempting to dissuade him from his foolhardy venture. Presently Timur and Liti add their entreaties, the slave-girl reminding the Prince of the fate that would befall his old father if Calaf failed (aria: 'Signore, ascolta!'). The Prince consoles her (aria: 'Non piangere, Liù'), but his mind is set on winning Turandot or losing his head in the venture. He strikes the fatal gong, thus announcing his decision to submit to the trial of the three riddles.
Act II. Scene 1.
A pavilion in the Palace.
The three Courtiers bemoan the present state of China where heads roll and peace has vanished—all on account of Turandot's cruel caprice. Nostalgically they dream of their idyllic retreats in the country, far away from Peking and the Princess. They pray that at last she may desist from her cruel game and find true love (Trio of the Three Masks).
Act II. Scene 2.
A square inside the Palace.
A monumental staircase leads up to the throne on which the Emperor is seated surrounded by the whole court, assembled for the crucial enigma scene. Turandot begins by explaining the reason for her vow: many thousand years ago her ancestress, Lo-u-ling, was carried off by a barbarian king and died; it is to avenge this crime that she has imposed this cruel trial on her suitors. Once more she counsels Calaf to withdraw (aria: 'In questa Reggia'). But the Prince remains adamant and the trial begins. One by one, he gives the correct answers to Turandot's three riddles ('Hope'—'Blood'—'Turandot'). The Princess, mortified by her defeat, entreats the Emperor not to permit her to become the slave of a foreign man, but Altoum reminds her of her sacred vow, which must now be fulfilled. Calaf now makes the generous offer to release her from her pledge, on condition that she discovers his name and origin by dawn; if she succeeds, then he is ready to die.
Act III. Scene 1.
A garden in the Palace.
Through the stillness of night, the voices of heralds are heard announcing Turandot's decree that no one in the city must sleep until the name of the Unknown is discovered. Calaf, certain of his triumph, muses on Turandot whose love he will awaken by a kiss (aria: 'Nessun dorma!'). The three Courtiers suddenly burst upon the scene and attempt, first by blandishments and promises and then by threats, to compel Calaf to reveal his name; but in vain. Timur and Liù, who had been seen in the company of the Prince (Act I), are now dragged by the guards before Turandot. Liù, fearing that Timur will be subjected to torture, steps forth and declares that she alone knows the Prince's name; but rather than betray it under torture she stabs herself to death. Her body is carried away in a funeral procession. Calaf and Turandot are alone. He upbraids her for her cruelty and taunts her for her supposedly cold heart. Boldly taking her in his arms, he presses a kiss on her lips which, like a magic spell, transforms the Princess. She now realizes that she had loved the Prince from the first moment she had set eyes on him and that Calaf's love was such that he was prepared to risk his life in releasing her from her vow. He reveals his name to her.
Act III. Scene 2.
The Emperor's Divan, as in Act II.
Turandot addresses the assembly, declaring that she has learned the name of the Unknown: it is love. The opera closes in general jubilation.
(From Puccini by Mosco Carner, Holmes & Meier Pub. Inc., New York, 2nd ed., 1974.)