Monday, June 4, 2012

ARIA READY: Turandot’s “In questa reggia”

For the next few weeks on this blog, we’ll be gearing up for Seattle Opera’s 2012/13 season by looking in depth at one aria each from our upcoming operas. Arias, after all, are the basic building block of opera—those crucial scenes in which the entire audience focuses in on what one singer can do with his or her voice, those moments in the story when a character, in a tense, dramatic situation, confronts his or her destiny.

Let’s start today with “In questa reggia,” Turandot’s mind-blowing entrance aria. (Yes, the prince's beautiful “Nessun dorma” has been the most famous aria in all opera for the last thirty years...but there's a little more to think and talk about with "In questa reggia.") Turandot first appears, silently, in the middle of Act One, when she gives the signal for her executioner to kill the Prince of Persia, who (before the curtain went up) attempted to woo her, failed her test of three riddles, and thus earned death. She makes her first vocal appearance with this aria, midway through Act Two. The situation is this: the Unknown Prince, having glimpsed her when she condemned the Prince of Persia, fell madly in love (after all, she’s the most beautiful woman in the world) and determined to take her test himself. But before asking him her three riddles, she sings “In questa reggia,” explaining why she instituted this riddle game ceremony in the first place:

TURANDOT: In this palace, thousands of years ago, a desperate cry rang out. That cry echoed through the generations, and still resounds within my soul. Princess Lou-Ling, my sweet, serene ancestor...once her quiet land prospered in joy and chastity. She defied the brutal rule of man, and today she is reborn in me.

CHORUS: This was when the King of Tartary unfurled his seven banners.

TURANDOT: Yet in that time, which everyone remembers, war brought terror and the clash of arms. Her kingdom was conquered, her kingdom was conquered. And Lou-Ling was dragged away, by a man like you, foreigner! In that terrible night her young voice was silenced forever.

CHORUS: She slept for centuries in her vast tomb...

TURANDOT: O princes, you journey here in endless caravans; from all over the world you come to try your fate. And I avenge on you her purity, I avenge her cry and her death! No man shall ever possess me! Horror of the one who killed her still lives in my heart. No man shall ever possess me! Her purity and her pride are reborn in me. Foreigner, do not tempt fate. There are three riddles, but only one death.

UNKNOWN PRINCE: There are three riddles, but only one life.

At the conclusion of the aria, Puccini ratchets up the excitement as the tenor and soprano repeat their final lines, coming together on a thrilling double high C. (Nilsson and Corelli, who sang this opera together often in the ‘60s, used to compete for who could outshout the other on that high note. According to theatrical legend, once, on a Met Tour, Corelli was pouting during the 2nd intermission because he had clearly lost the competition that night. Rudolf Bing, the Met’s General Director, talked him out of cancelling the rest of the performance and advised him to take revenge by biting Nilsson, gently, during their big kiss at the end of Act Three. The performance was salvaged, although the next morning a message from Nilsson was brought to Bing's hotel room: “Cannot continue tour. Have rabies.”)

Later this week, we’ll hear from our Turandot, Lori Phillips, who shared with us some thoughts about this aria. For now, here are two video clips of “In questa reggia” which we found interesting. First, from Operavox, a series of six 30-minute animated operas created by the BBC in 1995, if you go to 7:04 in this video you’ll hear “In questa reggia” as sung by Jane Eaglen (Seattle Opera’s last Turandot, in 1996) and envisioned by Gary Hurst:

And here’s the most famous Turandot of the 20th century, Birgit Nilsson, with her favorite Unknown Prince, Franco Corelli. The uploader of this video has apparently stitched together a video of Nilsson singing the aria in a studio with bits of her and Corelli from a telecast performance. We particularly love Corelli’s costume here as the Unknown Prince!

Puccini wrote Turandot in the first flush of worldwide excitement about Freud and the new windows into the human mind opened by psychoanalysis. You don’t need a degree in psychotherapy to understand that Turandot is talking about herself when she tells the story of her faraway ancestor “Princess Lou-Ling.” This aria is a thrilling, terrifying meditation on the cycle of violence.

Over the many years I’ve worked at Seattle Opera, I’ve had plenty of amazing experiences watching audiences experience opera. I’ll never forget the day I was given the opportunity to bring a soprano to a prison for children, where opera was used in the therapy for young sex offenders, children who had raped or molested other children. The goal of the therapy was to give these inarticulate young offenders, all of them male (most were 10-14) the skills to talk about their feelings, before they acted upon them; opera, in which people SING their feelings for all to share, helped many reach breakthroughs. Turandot was a favorite opera among this group, all of whom had in fact been victimized before becoming perpetrators. They understood “In questa reggia” perfectly, since it was their own experience. Several knew it well enough to sing along. The soprano I brought to sing for the group had to fight to control her tears as she sang, before reaching the defiant “M’ai nessun m’avra” (No man will ever have me)—she was surprised and nearly overwhelmed by the intensity with which this audience devoured each note she sang.

We’d love to hear about your experience with this aria. Do you find Turandot sympathetic or not? Do you find this aria beautiful, terrifying, sad, or inspiring? Have you ever known a Turandot (or been one)? Who was the greatest singer you ever heard in this role? If you have links to favorite versions of the piece, send them our way!


  1. Very interesting article that you’ve posted. Found the views to be quite informative and intriguing. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Fascinating post, Jonathan. Thanks.

    My father used to play a record of Maria Callas singing Puccini arias. Her performance of "In questa reggia" was the first I ever heard, and no other has ever matched it for me.

  3. Alice,

    Thanks for pointing out that Callas Turandot. I asked Speight Jenkins, who thinks it was one of those roles she recorded but didn't much sing onstage--in fact, he says, the opera wasn't given very often until Nilsson and Corelli started doing it. He recommends a recording with Inge Borkh (a great Strauss and Wagner singer), with Mario del Monaco and Renata Tebaldi, made, according to Speight, "when Tebaldi had the most beautiful voice in the world, that is, prior to December of 1957."

    -Jonathan Dean
    Seattle Opera

  4. Thanks, Jonathan. Yes, the Callas performance is obviously a studio recording, because there's no chorus and no Calaf! I will look for the recording Speight recommends.

  5. Reading this post in 2017 as the wave of revelations of sexual abuse sweeps the country. Most as is the Nillson/Corelli performance. Will share. Thank you.