Once upon a time there was a Princess called Turandot and she was a cold hearted bitch. She proclaimed that she would only marry the man who could solve three riddles that she set however the price of failure would be death. Despite Turandot’s cruelty many suitors tried to win her hand and died.
And then Prince Calaf came to her court incognito and fell in love with her. The Prince’s advisers and his serving girl Liu tried to talk him out of declaring himself but the Prince refused to listen. He truly was in love. Perhaps that was why he managed to answer all three riddles correctly, yet despite this Turandot still refused to marry him. The Prince released Turandot from her promise and said that he would be willing to die if she could guess his true name by morning.
Desperate to get the Prince out of her life Turandot and her minions turned the court upside down trying to discover the Prince’s true name. They found that the only person who knew the secret was the Prince’s own serving girl Liu but she refused to betray him. When Turandot asked Liu why she would not speak the serving girl finally admitted that she loved the Prince too much to betray him. Liu was tortured and when she thought she might break she killed herself rather than betray the man she loved.
This is not the end of the story but for me the death of Liu is the climax, at least in a musical sense, of the opera Puccini wrote about Turandot and the Prince. Whether you love opera or hate it I defy anyone to hear this aria sung by Barbara Hendricks [as Liu] and not be moved by her glorious voice. It is not the kind of voice you may have heard in the past…and hated. Trust me, just for a few minutes and listen…
Puccini died before he could finish the last act so the death of Liu is the last thing he wrote and I believe it is one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written. The role of Liu requires a coloratura* soprano voice and Barbara Hendricks has one of the purest yet warmest coloratura voices I have ever heard. Her voice soars to the highest notes with effortless grace and makes dramatic sopranos sound like screeching harpies. I apologise to any true opera buffs out there but most sopranos really do sound awful.
Oh and I should mention that the opera was finished by someone else along the lines of what Puccini intended so the Prince eventually melts Turandot’s heart and they live happily ever after. Hrumph.
* coloratura soprano – is a type of operatic soprano who specializes in music that is distinguished by agile runs and leaps. The term coloratura refers to the elaborate ornamentation of a melody, which is a typical component of the music written for this voice. [wiki]