Libretto & Source

Introduction | Gozzi’s Play | Other Versions of the Story | Turandot with Music | Other Adaptations


The play which was the source for Puccini’s Turandot, Schiller’s adaptation of Carlo Gozzi’s Turandot or Turandotte, has an even older genealogy (although there are several versions of the actual origin). According to some, it was based on a story by the Persian poet Nizemi, who had traced its origins back to very old Iranian or Arabian legends. It is NOT (as is often reported) from the collection we know as The Arabian Nights or the Thousand and One Nights. It may come from a Persian source called The Persian Tales or The Thousand and one Days, which was well-known in France.

How did a Persian fable come to be set in China? Very early, a people who called themselves Irani (Aryans) came from Babylonia and Assyria and settled in what is now Iran. Others called them Persians because early kings had their capital at Persis. When in the seventh century AD, they were conquered by Moslems, they changed their religion but not their culture. The new rulers took Baghdad (then in Persian territory) as their capital. The Turks conquered Persia in the eleventh century, but in the thirteenth century, it fell once more to Genghis Khan’s Mongols. Then, near the end of the fourteenth century, it fell to Tamerlane. In Puccini’s Turandot, the victim in Act I is the Prince of Persia.

Gozzi’s Play

The Characters


Timur, King of Astrakhan

Calàf, Prince of Nogese Tatary (Astrakhan)

Prince of Samarkand

Altoum (Emperor of China)

The Masks

Zelima (a slave)


Adelma (Former Tatar Princess)


Barach, called Assan (former tutor of Calàf)


Schirina (Zelima’s mother and wife of Barach)


Act I

At the gates of Peking which are decorated with the sculls of failed suitors

The Prince, Calàf, and his aged parents have escaped from the conquered kingdom of Astrakan. (Astrakan is at the mouth of the Volga River.) Living as beggars, they have crossed high snow-covered mountains and burning deserts on foot. For a while the Prince worked as a gardener for Cheicobad, king of the Caranzani, where he was noticed and helped by the Princess Adelma. Cheicobad started a war with Altoum, the Grand Khan, and was defeated; Adelma was thought to be dead. Another King took pity on the Prince’s family and arranged for the parents to be cared for in the poor house, leaving Calàf free to come to Peking, some 4,000 miles from his home. There he wished to join army of the Chinese Khan. At the gates of Peking he is recognized by his former tutor, Barach, who is living under an alias (Assan) and claiming to be from Persia. A dead march signals the beheading of the Prince of Samarkand. When Barach tells the Calàf of Turandot, the Prince remembers that the son of Cheicobad came to Peking and disappeared, probably another of Turandot’s victims. He is horrified by the stories he hears and castigates Turandot. Then he sees her portrait, falls in love with her, and becomes determined to answer the riddles himself.

Act II

Great Hall of royal council chamber

Truffaldino, master of the eunuchs, and Brighella, master of the pages discuss several topics while they rearrange the hall for the next test. There is a procession of guards; eight sages; Pantelone, the Emperor’s secretary; Tartaglia, the Chief Chancellor; and finally the Emperor Altoum. Pantelone says that where they come from (Venice) they don’t have such laws, nor are there men who fall in love with portraits and girls who hate marriage; they would laugh at such things. Calàf appears, saying he is a prince but refusing to give his name. All try to dissuade him from trying the riddles. A group of female slaves includes Adelma who was actually captured during her father’s war, and Zelima the stepdaughter of Barach. Adelma recognizes the Prince as her former gardener.

Turandot admits that this prince stirs her to pity. As he answers the questions, Zelima prays God to help him. Adelma also prays but for a different reason; she wants him for herself. Turandot advises the Prince to leave, but he insists on trying to answer the riddles and succeeds. Although the answers vary in different translations and adaptations, one set includes the sun, the year and the lion of St. Mark (symbol of Venice). Turandot wants to asks three more riddles but Altoum insists she stick to her vow. The Prince offers to die if she can find out his name by dawn.


The rest of play is very complicated and cost Puccini, Adami and Simoni considerable trouble in transforming it into an opera…


A seraglio or harem

Adelma laments her fate as a captive slave. Turandot describes her scorn for all men and their fickleness where women are concerned. Adelma proposes they trick the Prince into revealing his name, hoping to win him for herself. While the Prince and Barach are talking, guards come to fetch the Prince who just then is recognized by an old man in tattered clothing. It is his father Timur, who cries out Calàf’s name and tells him his mother is dead.

Act IV

The prison

Turandot tells Barach, his wife and Timur they can save their lives by revealing the Prince’s name. Barach refuses; but Timur agrees to be tortured and give the names on the condition that Barach and his wife are spared. Adelma has her own plan to corrupt the Prince’s guards. Turandot is torn: she would like to learn his name but is tormented by thoughts of his death. The Emperor tells Turandot he has learned the names of the Prince and his father, but she will never discover them; she should give up and marry "the worthiest man alive". She refuses. Calàf is visited in turn by Schirina, Zulima, and Adelma each trying unsuccessfully to learn the names. Finally Adelma tricks him into calling them out, but when she offers to save him if he will leave China with her, he refuses.

Act V

Second riddle scene

Turandot arrives and speaks the names of Calàf and Timur. Calàf tries to kill himself but Turandot stops him, saying he must live for her sake. When Adelma tries to kill herself if she can not have the Prince, Calàf stops her. Turandot realizes he loves her and announces her own love for him. Altoum announces Calàf will succeed him. He has received news that the usurper in Astrakhan has been overthrown, and Timur can return to his kingdom. Adelma is also allowed to go home. A happy Turandot announces that her previous hatred for the male sex has disappeared and asks pardon for her previous actions.


  1. 1. Keikobad and Barak are named in Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten (The Woman Without a Shadow) indicating its source might also have been Persia. The name Keikobad belonged to several historical rulers of Persia and also to a thirteenth century Seljuk Turkish king. Barak was the name of one of the Tatar rulers.
  2. In Gozzi’s play we learn more of Turandot’s character. She scorns men for their faithlessness in moving from woman to woman with little regard to social status. An early exponent of women’s liberation she, like the mythical Amazons, sees men as useful only for the fathering of children. She wants the freedom men enjoy and is proud of her intellect. However, at the end, she addresses the audience and tells them she was wrong about men--she really loves them. Until near the end, Puccini’s Turandot is only interested in revenging an ancient ancestress and in protecting her own purity.

Other Versions of the Story

There are many other versions of the same story. There is a tale called Wisdom under the Severed Heads in which there are as many riddles as can be asked between morning and evening. The Prince answers them all and asks the Princess his own riddle — not his name — which she fails to answer. They live happily ever after.

There is a Turandot story in which Calàf is the son of Tamerlane. In that one the answers to the riddles are the sun, the sea and the year.

Giuseppe Giacosa, one of Puccini’s librettists for earlier operas wrote Il trionfo d’amore, in which the story is moved to the Val d’Aosta in Italy during medieval times.

Not all versions involve riddles. Marco Polo tells of a king of Samarkand who had a daughter who was able to defeat any man in the kingdom in battle. She swore never to take a husband until she found one who could defeat her. Her father gave her permission to marry anyone who bested her, but if a man tried and failed, he had to give her 100 horses. While no one dies, she has received 10,000 horses.

Turandot with Music

About 1800, all spoken plays in German had incidental music. At least five different composers, including Weber, wrote incidental music for a serious drama based on Gozzi’s Turandot by the German poet Schiller, and at least seven operas predated Puccini’s. Puccini’s source was Andrea Maffei’s Italian translation of Schiller’s play adapted from Gozzi.

Gazzoletti-Bazzini*: Turanda. 1867, La Scala

Only a few fragments of this were published and, although he was probably aware of the opera, it is doubtful that Puccini knew it. The setting is on the Tigris in Persia before AD 650 at the time of the last Sassinad kings. There is a seraglio and no masks. The characters include Turanda the daughter of the king of Persia and Adelma her confidant. Calàf becomes Nadir, an Indian prince. Timur is dropped. Acts I and II are basically the same as in Gozzi. Turanda tries to learn the secret name by magic but the spirits refuse to give it to her. Adelma puts a sleeping potion in Nadir’s drink. While Turanda and Adelma observe him, he mentions his name in his sleep. In Act IV Turanda confesses her feelings for Nadir. Later she tells him she knows his name and orders him away. When he tries to stab himself, Turanda confesses her love and asks her father to bless their marriage.

*Bazzini taught Puccini at the Milan conservatory.

Busoni’s Turandot

Busoni’s Turandot (1917) started as an orchestral suite. In 1913 he got the idea to turn it into an opera. He wrote his own libretto, following Gozzi rather than Schiller, and retained Truffaldino, Pantalone and Tartaglia. His Act I is a compression of Gozzi’s first act. Truffaldino directs the arrangements for the coming test. The Emperor Altoum is a major character. Adelma recognizes the Prince immediately and knows his name so all the complications are avoided. ACT II starts with a chorus set to Greensleeves! Turandot examines her feelings, and her Father urges her to yield, "he is too good for you". Adelma tells Turandot the name of the Prince in return for her freedom. When Turandot announces Calàf’s name, he starts to leave but Turandot asks him to stay; he has awakened her heart. The final ensemble asks, Was ist das alle Menschen bindet? (What is it that binds all mankind?) The answer is Love.

It was the practice, especially when Goethe directed Schilller’s play, to keep changing the riddles. Some of the answers are:









Human Mind

Hope and Faith





Knowledge and Power


Lion of Venice




Other Adaptations

There are plays by Raymond (1897), Vollmöller(1911), Wolfenstein (1931), Reiser (1933) and Hildesheimer (1955); incidental music by Destouches (1802) and Weber (1809); ballets by Gsovsky (1944), Blank (1952), Freund (1955) and Egri (1964); operas in addition to those by Bassini and Busoni by Reissiger (1835), von Püttingen (1838), Jensen (1864) and Rehbaum (1888); and finally, a 1934 film by Lamprecht. Turandot is a popular lady.