There is a particular richness of musical invention in Puccini’s Turandot, but richer still is the variety of ways in which the old tale of the ‘ice princess’ has been used throughout the centuries. In fact, few subjects have inspired so many theatrical interpretations, ranging from the commedia dell’arte of the 18th century to the 20th century’s Theatre of the Absurd. Of the twelve operas that have been written about Turandot (thirteen if one counts a vaudeville of 1729), no fewer than six were composed during Puccini’s lifetime. His is the only version still performed on a regular basis.

In the Near East, the story has been known for close on a thousand years, and even today, folk-tales persist in the Iranian region about an irresistible princess of China and her potentially fatal challenges to unwanted suitors.

Turandot (Turan-doxt, Turandoct, Tourandocte or Turandokht) is a Persian name meaning ‘the daughter of Turan’ - Turan being the Persian name for Central Asia. Persia fell to Genghis Khan's Mongols in the thirteenth century and then, in the following century, to the Tatar ruler Timur, known to Europeans as Tamerlane. This Timur was a military genius (albeit an exceedingly brutal one) who died during a campaign against the Ming dynasty. His son visited China in 1420. The Timurid dynasty survived until 1857 as the Mughal dynasty of India.

One of the principal sources of the story of Turandot is a collection called The Thousand and One Days, or The Persian Tales, a counterpart to The Thousand and One Nights. A translation by the pioneer French orientalist François Pétis de la Croix was published in several volumes between 1710 and 1712, and this was subsequently translated into other European languages. Pétis claimed to have heard these tales while living in Isfahan and entitled one of them: Histoire du prince Calaf et de la princesse de la Chine. For European explorers of the 16th and 17th centuries, Persia was the gateway to the East, and it was through this gateway that they glimpsed the even more distant ‘fairy-tale’ kingdom of China.

More than a century later, Italian composer Giacomo Puccini was still working on his opera Turandot at the time of his death in 1924. Unlike his other operatic heroine, Madame Butterfly, who lived and died for the love of a man, Turandot rejected any man whom she deemed inferior to her. Puccini's opera became the most famous of the artistic variations of her life’s story.


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