Riddle Me This

Talk about a tough courting process! First, present yourself to the royal court as a suitor for Princess Turandot. Next, answer 3 riddles that are asked by the Princess. If you answer all 3, you win her hand in marriage.  If you have even one incorrect answer, you are sentenced to death. Pittsburgh Opera continued its recent season with Puccini’s final opera, Turandot.

If you went to see the production you would have witnessed a triple treat: 1) Former Pittsburgh Opera resident artist, Alexandra Loutsion, made her role debut as Turandot; 2) The Pittsburgh Opera chorus under the direction of Mark Trawka showed off their vocal artistry; And 3) a set of 13 hand cast, tuned bronze gongs custom-built for the world premiere of Turandot in 1926 were used in this production. Pavarotti signed one of them at a benefit concert several years ago.

Like many of Puccini’s operas, you are already familiar with some of the music, even if you have never seen the opera. “Nessun dorma,” Prince Calaf’s Act III aria, has been recorded by many operatic tenors and used in television ads and movies. It became an unofficial anthem for the sport of soccer when a Luciano Pavarotti recording was used by the BBC during its 1990 World Cup coverage. Even Aretha Franklin sang it for the Grammy Awards in 1998 when Pavarotti was too ill to perform!

Despite the controversy that surrounds the opera’s ending, completed by Franco Alfano after Puccini’s death, the opera contains the soaring melodies that are a hallmark of Puccini’s compositions, great choral music and colorful orchestrations.

Explore more about Turandot through the CD, DVD and book recommendations on this list. Hope to see you at the opera!

Turandot (1996)

This recording is one of my personal favorites.  The pairing of Birgit Nilsson and Jussi Björling is a thrilling listen and you have Renata Tebaldi as Liù. That’s the good stuff!

Turandot (2008)

Franco Corelli as Calaf is the highlight of this recording.  Many think he is the Calaf “for the ages.”

Turandot (2009)

Eva Marton sings the title role, but the other huge star of this production is the set design of David Hockney. The bold colors create life-like paintings on stage.

The Turandot Project

This documentary follows the collaboration of conductor, Zubin Mehta and film director, Yimou Zhang in mounting the elaborate Florence production of Turandot. The film continues as the Florence production is brought to China and produced in an original Ming dynasty setting.


The English National Opera guides are a great way to prepare to see any opera.  This guide includes several introductory essays about the work and a side-by-side Italian and English translation of the libretto (translation by William Weaver).

The Romantic World of Puccini: A New Critical Appraisal of the Operas

Arnesen’s book, an intriguing work, brings a fresh view of Puccini to the table.  She draws comparisons between Puccini and Wagner, even calling Puccini’s operas a Rose Cycle contrasting with Wagner’s Ring.  She also argues that Puccini’s works evolved from the romance genre of 12th century France, full of strong heroines.

Puccini: His Life and Works

Budden, most known for his treatment of the operas of Verdi, seems equally at home with Verdi’s fellow countryman. A brief biography gives way to in-depth treatments of all of Puccini’s operas.  The penultimate chapter focuses on Turandot. Budden describes the opera’s creation, interprets the musical motifs, and discusses the controversial completion of the work by Franco Alfano after Puccini’s death.

The Complete Operas of Puccini: A Critical Guide

Osborne is the “go-to” man if you want detailed treatments of opera composers.  He has also written books about the works of Mozart, Richard Strauss, Verdi and Wagner.  Osborne’s discussion of Turandot begins with an account of how the work was created and premiered.  Excerpts from Puccini’s letters highlight the process.  The middle section discusses the plot and characters, including the transformation of Italian maschere (masks, figures from commedia dell’arte) into the characters of Ping, Pang and Pong.  The last section of this informative work outlines the work’s musical motifs.

The Puccini Problem: Opera, Nationalism and Modernity

Wilson explores the debates about Puccini as a composer.  Was he an Italian nationalist or an international artist?  Did he modernize opera or did he continue its traditions?  Even the chapter about Turandot is titled, “A suitable ending?”.  Wilson discusses whether Puccini’s final work continued to celebrate great romantic plots or if it veered from that formula with its more “cold” and “intellectual” title heroine.