Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Three Riddles of Turandot

The opera "Turandot" features an Asian princess who many men wish to marry. However, if they wish to do so, they must answer three riddles correctly. Failure to do so leads to death. No man can answer the three riddles correct until Calaf appears.

Turandot is so beautiful that many men long to be with her. Though the penalty for failure is death, many men risk their lives to marry her. Calaf's father begs his son not to accept Turandot's challenge, but he does so.

The first riddle is "What is born each night and dies at dawn?" When I first heard this riddle, I thought of the moon. It appears at night and disappears during the day. But this is not the answer Turandot seeks. It is "hope."

The answer to this riddle does not seem obvious. Perhaps hope appears at night when one goes to bed and then dreams but it could just as easily appear during the day and die at night. In addition, one could argue that hope never dies but is always present.

The second riddle is "What flickers red and warm like a flame, yet is not fire?" The answer is "blood." Blood is red and warm like a flame but it does not flicker. The definition seems inaccurate. A big difference between fire and blood is that fire is a chemical reaction and blood is a liquid. Had Turandot asked "What is like fire and water?," the riddle would have been more accurate. Blood is red and warm like fire and it is a liquid that flows like water.

The third riddle is "What is like ice yet burns?" 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. The problem with this riddle is that many answers are possible. Besides Turandot, many others could satisfy the definition. However, the key is to give the answer that Turandot wants and that is written on her ministers' scrolls.

The answers to the rules of Turandot are not wholly satisfactory. Nevertheless, Turandot does not care because it is her intention to make them so difficult that no man can solve them and thus claim the right to marry her. Prince Calaf's ability to solve the three riddles astounds not only the princess but all the citizens of her kingdom.


Jacob Steward said...

It's important to remember when offering criticisms that are based on wording and poetic relationships that language, time, and culture are all different. Turandot was nearly completed in 1924, when Puccini died, is in French, and was composed for an audience of vast cultural differences.

Barbie Chiu said...

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Theodora Jelaca said...

Puccini made the riddles up Yes , these are the answers , but only in the opera .In the story Calaf et Turandot , the answers are sun , sea and year.The end of this story is more believable then the one in the opera . Calaf and his family (it is said that he and Turandot have two sons )went back to his kingdom , which was restored and that he ruled in peace and happiness. In the Gozzi's play , the answers are sun , year and Venice .In Schiller's play , the answers are year , eye and plow .Nice article and good luck.

Sam Wilson said...

Hey there! Vocal performance major here with emphasis in opera. Turandot is Italian, not French. A common misconception because of the ot at the end of Turandot (pronounced Doat (like goat with a D, not Do)

Bedir Akbar said...

It is my understanding the word is neither Italian nor French. The original story is based on Turan-Dokht (the second word translates from The 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.

Troy Richlen said...

I will offer my counterpoint:

Riddle 1

Hope is indeed born at night. A hope that tomorrow will be different than today. But that hope dies when the bright light illuminates the day's reality each morning.

Riddle 2
A minor quibble, but fire is not a gas and the riddle makes the point "is not fire." But both can bring both life and death. Moreover the path that fire takes is not predictable nor is the path of our life depending on the "temperature" of our blood.

Riddle 3
Like the first two 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 princess 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.

But, I enjoyed your analysis. It made me think and for that I thank you.

Les Zsoldos said...

You're correct that fire isn't a gas. I've made this correction. Thank you!

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