What's Her Problem?
A Close Look at the Aria "In questa reggia" and Turandot's Motivation
Though the opera bears her name, Turandot doesn’t sing a note until halfway through. In the middle of the second act, just before presenting Calàf (still simply “the stranger” to her) with her riddles, she appears and, without preamble, begins the aria “In questa reggia” (“In this palace”). Text and translation can be found here.
The moment is both startling and odd. Before beginning a process that has been fatal for countless men, Turandot takes the time to explain her motivation. “In questa reggia” is presented in its entirety on Track 1; the following paragraphs are offered as a listening guide.
The aria begins matter-of-factly. Turandot is laying out a set of historical facts. Central is “un grido disperato”—a desperate cry heard generations before. Though Turandot does not reenact that cry, dissonant accompaniment expresses the pain. Powerfully, but without emotional inflection, she declares that she can hear it still, centuries later.
After these lines of introduction, the melody turns lyrical, as Turandot sings of an ancestor, Princess Lou-Ling, who reigned in peace and stability. At first, she delivers the tale as if reciting a bedtime story to a beloved child. But she can’t maintain her calm. Restrained energy enters her singing. She is struggling to hold something back.
Puccini now hints that this isn’t the first time Turandot has spoken of Lou-Ling: as if anticipating their princess’s next words, the crowd interrupts, softly, supportively, but also perhaps in a sort of ritual response. This, they comment, all happened in the time of the Tartar king. Turandot barely notices the interruption.
The dam begins to break. Turandot’s cadence turns percussive, even martial, as her voice fills with fury. Words fall in punctuated clumps. Extended notes and irregular rests lend a quality of impromptu speech. Lou-Ling’s empire was conquered; she was captured—“by a man like you, stranger”—and killed, or worse. Sorrowfully, Turandot concludes, “Her young voice was silenced.”
Again Puccini brings the crowd in. This time, it sounds like they’re mouthing a familiar old line: “For centuries, she has rested in her massive tomb.” As her subjects thus implicitly comment on their princess’s obsession, the composer turns the subject from Lou-Ling to Turandot herself.
“Oh princes” she sings, as if her audience were not her own court and Calàf, but every suitor past, present and future. “I take revenge on you all for that purity, that cry and that death.” She uses the word “grido,” or cry, twice again: first with passion that already seems climactic, then pouncing like a lioness onto an indomitably long high note.
Puccini provides relief with a swell of sudden melody. Turandot gathers herself and declares, “No one will ever have me.” She pronounces herself determined, indeed proud, to embody Lou-Ling’s purity.
Abruptly, she zeroes in on Calàf. Almost in mockery, she warns, “Stranger, do not tempt fortune. There are three riddles—but one death.” Given her ferocity, his response is particularly bold: “There are three riddles—but one life.” He goes further: Having patiently listened to the whole thing, Calàf now forces his way into the aria, turning it into a duet on its very last line.
As a solo piece, “In questa reggia” would be a breathtaking revelation of Turandot’s state of mind. As the centerpiece of his opera, Puccini takes it a step further. By intercutting the comments of the chorus and Calàf, the aria advances the plot.