Would you risk your life to conquer the person you wish to marry? Read the ancient story of Turandot and Calaf – a legend that has inspired writers and composers alike.
Traditionally, Princesses tend to be weak and in need of saving. But not so the Chinese heroine by the name of “Turandot” (pronounced “Ter-un-doh”), who wields her despotic power in Peking. Her story is a good example of how trauma can lead people to sabotage their relationships – but it also portrays how love can be possible once you allow yourself to feel.
Over centuries, this disturbing but captivating legend of the cruel princess “Turandotte” has inspired multiple works in Persia, Germany, France and Italy. Surely the most popular of those is the classical opera by Giacomo Puccini. Fascinated by the barbarian romanticism of a mysterious story of love and death, Puccini began composing in 1920. His version of the “Turandot” legend premiered in Teatro alla Scala in Milan six years later – in April 1926. It was incomplete, because the composer died before finishing it. This monument of lyric art and intensive drama tinged with mysterious charm of the Orient became a testamentary work and an apotheosis of Puccini’s genius.
The story of “Turandot” features an Asian princess who many men wish to marry. They pursue her not out of love but for the power and fortune she is to inherit as the only child of the mighty Emperor of China. In order to be considered by Turandot, each pretender to her hand must solve three riddles. Failure to do so leads to death by decapitation.
The “cold” princess is traumatized by the death of her relative who was killed by a prince during his pursuit of her. Turandot resolves never to let a man conquer her and vows to torture and kill any potential suitor who cannot answer three riddles. She simply wants to take revenge on men for acts of violence against women. While trying to protect herself from being dominated and possibly mistreated, Turandot sabotages her chance of finding love.
No man can answer the three riddles correctly until Prince Calaf appears. This young daredevil hides in the capital of his enemies with his father Timur, deposed King of Tartary. The old, blind man is guided by a young slave, Liù, who has followed him into exile out of love for his son, the prince. Liù and Timur try to discourage Calaf, who is dazzled by Turandot’s beauty, from submitting to the trial of the three riddles in front of the entire imperial court and risking his life. But the young prince is deaf to their plees. He signs up for the test that can either make him the heir to the throne or a stiff corpse.
Turandot, certain of his failure, does not even bother to ask the candidate to introduce himself. Why should she care about the name of the next dead body?
Shall we see if YOU would be able to answer any of the riddles correctly? Or would the executioner cut YOUR head?
The first riddle goes like this:
“In the gloomy night an iridescent phantom flies. It spreads its wings and rises over infinite, black humanity. Everyone invokes it, everyone implores it. But the phantom disappears at dawn to be reborn in the heart. And every night it’s born and every day it dies.”
I must admit that initially, I thought of the moon. It appears at night and disappears during the day. But this is not the answer Turandot seeks.
Riddle number two:
“It flickers like flame, and is not flame. Sometimes it rages. It’s feverish, impetuous, burning! But idleness changes it to languor. If you’re defeated or lost, it grows cold. If you dream of winning, if flames. Its voice is faint, but you listen; it gleams as bright as the sunset.”
What is your guess?
Read till the end to find out if your intuition is correct or not!
The third riddle:
“Ice that makes you burn and from your fire is more frosty. White and dark. If she sets you free, she makes you a slave. If she accepts you as a slave, she makes you a King. What is the frost that gives off fire?”
Turandot’s intention was to make the riddles so difficult that no man could solve them and thus claim the right to marry her. But Calaf gives her a run for her money. His ability to solve the three riddles astounds not only the princess but all the citizens of her father’s kingdom.
After the unknown prince finds the answers to the three questions asked by the cruel Turandot, she begs her father to free her from the unwanted marriage. Her wish is to stay single and independent, without a man to rule her.
Instead of forcing her into loving him (what a gentleman!), the prince turns the tables by giving Turandot his own riddle to solve. Offering her a way out of an unwanted marriage, Calàf tells Turandot that if she’s able to find out his name by the morning, he will be prepared to die. Turandot’s task is to discover his identity before the sun rises. If she can’t, she is to marry him.
As both are awake that night, he sings his spectacular “Nessun dorma”. That’s the most popular aria from “Turandot” is “Nessun Dorma” – made famous by Pavarotti’s version used in the 1990 FIFA World Cup coverage and by Aretha Franklin, who sang her own version of “Nessun Dorma” after stepping in for Pavarotti at the 1998 Grammy Awards.
Personally, I do love this aria, if it’s well performed. I stay in my seat fixated, with hairs standing on end, feeling immersed in the emotion of the song, the desperation of the princess to avoid a fate worse than death, and the determination of the unknown stranger, who risks his life to get her.
The lyrics literally mean “nobody is sleeping in Peking”, which is totally true, as sadistic Turandot has ordered the townsfolk to be questioned by the police. If her soldiers fail to find the name, they will die…
In order to uncover the mysterious stranger’s identity, Turandot does not hesitate to have his slave and his father tortured. Rather than bow down to the pressure and disclose the suitor’s name, Liù commits suicide, with the intention of saving Calaf. So very sad, because by this stage we are well aware that Turandot isn’t half the human being Liu is.
Calaf, the egoistic hot-shot, offers his life to Turandot, revealing his identity to her at the same time. Just as she declares to the assembled people that she finally knows the stranger’s name, the Princess proclaims: “His name is Love!”. And so they get married, basically dancing on the grave of poor Liù, who sacrificed her life for the ungrateful and ambitious man, who could not love her back. Regardless of the unfair execution of one of the only likable characters in the cast, everyone else lives happily ever after. Just between you and me, out of Liu and Turandot, Calaf must have been crazy to go for the “cold princess”…
My own riddle, after having seen “Turandot” is: why do good girls always lose, while the coldest and hardest to get seem all the most desirable. If you know the correct answer to THIS riddle, please make sure to share it with me.
Let’s check if you have guessed Turandot’s riddles correctly.
The answer to number one… (drum sticks please) is “hope.”
It does not seem obvious. But hope is indeed born at night. Hope that tomorrow will be different from today. But that hope dies when the bright light illuminates the day’s reality each morning.
Riddle number two – the answer is “blood.” Blood is red and warm like a flame but it does not flicker.
Riddle number three – the answer is “Turandot.”
The riddle implies that Turandot is cold. She is a cruel ruler who rejects love. At the same time, she burns because she is a woman filled with anger and has warm blood flowing through her veins.
Do not get frustrated if your answers are completely wrong. For all three riddles there are many possible answers – if you ignore context. But the riddles pertain to a specific prize. When context is added all three answers are in a way obvious. There is no middle ground, there is fire and there is ice. A wrong answer is death, a correct answer unleashes the pent up desire of the Princess. This is punctuated by her reaction when all riddles are answered and the cold aloof Turandot becomes a sniveling child begging her father for another outcome.
The answers are the secrets of Turandot and for her, like all of us, their revelation is both liberating and terrifying.
It’s important to remember when offering criticisms that Turandot’s riddles are based on wording and poetic relationships from ancient legends – with the language, time, and culture so much different from our times. Turandot was nearly completed in 1924, when Puccini died, is in Italian, and was composed for an audience of vast cultural differences. The original story is based on Turan-Dokht (the second word translates from a Farsi word دختر to “daughter”) from the epic Haft Peykar (The Seven Beauties), work of 12th-century Persian poet Nizami. Turan’s Dokhter seems to confuse all her pursuers – to this day.
Like Turandot, you or someone close to you may have had bad experiences that make you doubt if love is possible. But tell me this: “What can be hard to find, even harder to maintain, but is worth putting in the effort if it’s with the right person?” The answer to this riddle, if you allow it to be, is LOVE.
Text by Anna Koliber,
author of “Faceless Lover” – erotic novel, available on Amazon