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Strong Women in Opera: Turandot

In this series of articles, we will focus on female roles who stand out by virtue of their strong, independent and enterprising character. Heroines who prove to us that opera, as a mirror of our societies, is capable of questioning certain models and gender representations. Following our profile of Mařenka in Smetana’s The Bartered Bride, it is Princess Turandot’s turn for a spot in the limelight!

2. The title role Princess in Puccini’s Turandot

Haunted by the memory of her grandmother, Princess Lou-Sing, raped and murdered by a brutal man, the icy Turandot is set on revenge by challenging her suitors to answer three riddles on pain of having their heads cut off. In her famous aria "In questa reggia", Turandot recounts these macabre events.

If the origin of the character is certainly much more misogynist than feminist - the myth of the cold, cruel and castrating woman akin to the ‘witches’ persecuted en masse during the Renaissance -, Turandot is no shrinking violet but a resolutely independent and powerful character.

Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb

Extract | 'In questa reggia'

Turandot can indeed be seen today as a figure of resistance in the face of violence against women, refusing male domination and willing to do anything to this end. The death of the loving and devoted Liù, who gives her life to protect an ungrateful one, could even be seen as the downfall of the female archetype of sacrifice and submission to power and independence.

But this ideological struggle does not, however, last forever as Puccini's opera offers Turandot and Prince Calaf the prospect of everlasting love. The final version of Turandot, finished by the Italian composer Franco Alfano after Puccini’s death, is often criticised for lacking subtlety and presents their marriage with ‘happily ever after’ overtones. So our progressive reading of Turandot reaches its limits here!

Turandot - Watch the full performance on OperaVision from 14 August 2020 to 12 February 2021.