The Main Event:
A Close Look at Musical Effects in the Riddle Scene
Turandot is an opera packed with big moments, but none is more spectacular than the scene in which Turandot confronts Calàf with her riddles. (Students can test their own riddle-solving skills: the text of the riddles can be found here.) Here Puccini demonstrates his mastery of musical storytelling.
The confrontation begins with the final lines of Turandot’s aria “In questa reggia” (see Musical Highlight: What’s Her Problem?), with what the stage directions call a “menacing” warning. “Stranger,” proclaims Turandot, “Do not tempt Fortune! There are three riddles—but one death.” (Track 3).
Before she can even finish her thought, Calàf replies in a different key, “No, Princess, no! There are three riddles—but one life!” They challenge each other both verbally and harmonically, and the crowd calls on Turandot to begin the trial (Track 4).
At this juncture the composer brings all action to a halt. Suspense builds. Nearly 40 seconds pass, and even the orchestra is still, before a trumpet finally sounds (Track 5).
Puccini inserts one more pause, a powerful silence. At last, Turandot belts out, unaccompanied, “Stranger! Listen!” The orchestra delivers three chords, then, as if to cut off debate, a drum sounds. This musical theme will return: it is the foundation of both Turandot’s questions and Calàf’s answers (Track 6).
Turandot begins her riddle unaccompanied, drums beating like death knells at the end of each line (Track 7). In the middle, after a silence, the first of many disturbing snippets of music sneaks up from the orchestra pit. Strings cry. Ghostly wisps escape from woodwinds then fade away. Instruments play discordantly. The eerie music accompanies Turandot as she mentions a ghost disappearing at sunrise.
When the riddle ends, all sound ceases again. We can almost feel Calàf groping for an answer. All at once, a rush of strings lifts his response. The harmony is familiar, a confident 19th-century retort to the fractured 20th-century sounds of the riddle. Calàf boldly delivers his answer to Turandot’s own melody. A dark flourish, again in a 19th-century musical idiom over nervous fiddling, points to the Wise Men who affirm Calàf has given the correct answer. Softly, grudgingly, Turandot agrees: the answer to the first riddle is hope, which, she adds, “always deludes” (Track 8).
Puccini makes us wait once more in silence for Turandot to begin again. This time, strings accompany her. More drums, more odd orchestral outbursts, whimpering, throbbing. A cymbal crashes; the riddle comes to an end. As vibrating strings prolong the strain, Puccini tosses in a surprise: the Emperor himself calls out words of encouragement: Don’t give up, stranger! Now things move quickly. The crowd repeats the Emperor’s cheer. Liù, the servant girl, cries, “It’s for love.” This time, no pregnant pause precedes Calàf’s answer. Perhaps heartened by his supporters, he plunges forward, calling out the answer, “Blood!”, to the music of the question/answer motif. Then a flourish, as before. The Wise Men affirm, as before. But instead of a quiet word of acceptance from Turandot, Puccini scores a rousing cheer from the crowd. The princess, furious, demands, “Bash those villains!” (Track 9)
Yet again Puccini makes us wait, together with the crowd on stage, on tenterhooks. Is Turandot gathering her thoughts? Is she playing cat-and-mouse with the unknown prince? Suddenly, with Calàf-like vigor, preceded by a string figure much like that which has announced his answers, she roars out. Puccini deploys yet another device, scoring this third riddle at a slightly higher pitch than the others. The effect is to heighten tension, even if a listener can’t tell why. There’s anxiety in Turandot’s voice. A lone trumpet replaces the imperious drumming. Puccini holds the audience’s attention with five stately, unrevealing, descending chords. Turandot seems to regain confidence. Again unaccompanied, she taunts, “You’re pale with fear, stranger!” The stately chords return. Is she holding all the cards at last? It is Calàf’s moment of truth, and Puccini stretches it almost unbearably. All of a sudden, Calàf responds: the answer is “Turandot.” The Wise Men affirm for the third time. The crowd cheers in a musical blend of “exotic” Eastern melody and dense, old-time Western harmony—a triumphal march, the soundtrack of a coronation. Calàf is victorious! (Track 10)
Deftly working with sound and silence, rhythms, harmonies, and the styles of two cultures and two eras, with themes that foreshadow and recall elements of plot, Puccini demonstrates in this scene how compositional technique can charge narrative and character development in opera.