Peking in Legendary Times
A Mandarin proclaims that the Princess Turandot will marry only a royal suitor who solves three riddles. The Prince of Persia, having tried and failed, is about to be executed. The mob calls for the executioner. A slave girl, Liù, begs for help when her companion, an old man, is knocked down. The Unknown Prince, Calaf, helps and recognizes his father, Timur, once king of the Tartars. Father and son, separated since a foreign invasion, embrace. When Turandot appears for the execution, Calaf is dazzled and determines he must have her. Liù, Timur, and the three royal ministers, Ping, Pang, and Pong, try to dissuade him, but Calaf strikes the gong to announce himself as the next suitor.
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Ping, Pang, and Pong reflect on how the people of China lived in harmony for centuries before Turandot’s rule. Now, the three of them have been reduced to ministers of execution. The full court assembles, and the Emperor counsels Calaf to depart. He refuses. The Princess explains the purpose of the test—to avenge an ancestress brutalized by an invader—and asks the riddles: “What is born each night, only to die the next day?” “Hope,” he answers. Then “What is like a flame, yet is not, that grows cold when life is lost and burns with hope and desire?” “Blood.” And finally, “What is ice that sets you on fire?” “Turandot!” Realizing the Prince has won, the crowd is elated. Stunned, Turandot pleads with her father not to give her away to a man. Calaf offers Turandot an escape. If she can tell him his name before dawn, he is willing to die.
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A Mandarin proclaims that on penalty of death, no one is to sleep that night. Each must seek out the name of the Unknown Prince. Timur and Liù are dragged in by the guards; Liù claims that she alone knows the answer and it will remain her secret. She is tortured in vain. Turandot, perplexed, asks what gives Liù such strength. “It is love,” replies Liù before she seizes a dagger and stabs herself. The crowd takes away Liù’s body and Turandot is left alone with Calaf. He grabs the Princess and kisses her. She weeps, confesses her love for him, and begs him to leave with his secret. Knowing she is his, he risks all and tells her his name. At dawn, Turandot appears and announces, “I know the stranger’s name: it is Love!”