In front of the walls of the imperial palace in Beijin, a mandarin reads a proclamation announcing that the princess Turandot will marry only a suitor of royal blood who will answer the three riddles set by her. Suitors who will fail to answer will be beheaded. The prince of Persia has just failed in his attempt and will soon find his death at the gallows. The crowd awaits the execution eagerly while the others call the princess to stop the cruel bloodshed. During the cummotion an old man falls to the ground. A younger man rushes to his aid, recognizing that the old man is his father whom he thought dead. The happy reunion between father and son is somewhat quieted as Calaf, the young man, informs his father, Timur the old king of the Tartars, that they are persecuted by enemies. Timur has escaped the enemy with the aid of Liu, his faithful servant. As the prince of Persia is led to the scaffold the crowd laments his beauty and his young age. Turandot appears for an instant signaling that the execution can proceed. Calaf, catching her sight for a mere instant, is smitten. He must answer the riddles and marry the princess. Timur entreats his son to run away and save his life, and the three imperial ministers, Ping, Pang and Pong also beg the anonymous man to reconsider. Even Liu, who has secretly loved Calaf for many years, asks him to leave but he consoles her in a beautiful aria, saying he can not be moved. Calaf has made up his mind. He approaches the palace gates, strikes the gong thrice and calls three times the name of Turandot accepting the challenge that many before him failed and paid for their failure with their own life.
The three comedia dellarte type ministers, Ping, Pang and Pong, discuss the funeral rites of the victory parade for the unknown prince. They lament Turandot’s ongoing bloodshed and long for the good old days of the quiet past, hoping they will be able to enjoy the joys of nature. They day dream about the time in which peace will come and some suitor will conquer the ice princess. But soon enough they are brought back to reality and proceed to the royal palace to attend, yet again, one more riddle ceremony.
Many have gathered at the palace where the old emperor Altum implores Calaf once more to save his life. But no one can change Calaf’s mind, even not Turandot herself who appears and in her aria explains why she is so cruel to her suitors. A long time ago, she says, a foreign king has ravished her ancestress and Turandot has vowed to avenge the horrible deed. Calaf is ready and provides the answer for the first riddle with ease. It is hope which is born anew every night he says. The second riddle is tougher for Calaf but again he provides the right answer: blood kindles like a flame. Turandot is somewhat agitated. Her third question seems to beat the prince: “Which ice gives fire?” she asks and eventually Calaf does claim his victory. The answer of course is Turandot herself. The people hail the victorious prince but Turandot begs her father: she dose not want to marry the prince. Altum cannot help his daughter, but Calaf comes with a proposal: he will ask the princess one riddle. If she can guess his name by dawn he will be ready to die. Turandot accepts the challenge.
Turandot sends her messengers through the city to find out the prince’s name. No one shall sleep tonight, comes the decree, until the name is found out. In the palace garden Calaf awaits the morning, singing one of the famous arias in operatic history (Nessun dorma). The three mandarins ask him to run away and offer him money and other women. But Calaf, as we all know, is very stubborn. He will not give up Turandot. Torturers drag in Timur and Liu. They have been seen speaking with the prince and it is hoped that they can provide the name all Beijing is searching for. Turandot commands them to speak, but Liu in order to save her master’s life says only she knows the name but will never disclose it because of her love to Calaf. Snatching a dagger from one of the guards, Liu stabs herself and dies. Calaf and Turandot remain alone on stage. He tears the veil off her face and kisses her passionately. The kiss melts in the ice princess. She confesses that from the beginning she has feared and loved the unknown prince. She hopes Calaf is happy to know she loves him and asks him to leave. But Calaf simply reveals his true identity to Turandot putting his life in her hands. She again assumes her former attitude, rushing to summon the Emperor and the people, announcing that she has revealed the stranger’s name: it is “Amore” — love. Turandot and Calaf kiss and the crowd is overjoyed.