The plot of Puccini’s last opera “Turandot” hinges on the nameless suitor answering three riddles. Readers familiar with myth and folklore will instantly recognize this as an element common to many tales.
The suitor in “Turandot” is faced with having to answer three abstract riddles, the answers to which are “Hope,” “Blood,” and “Turandot.” (One wonders if each suitor got the same three, considering that they are read out loud and word must have gotten around if they were unchanged through the years!) If he wins, he gets the Princess; if he loses, he loses his head. Since Turandot herself is the cause of many deaths in the past, one should keep her association with Death in mind as we proceed in this essay.
In Wagner’s “Siegfried,” Wotan in his guise as The Wanderer, plays (as Anna Russell puts it in her spoof of the Ring Cycle) 20 Questions with Mime. The dwarf wages his head (cf. the wager in “Turandot”) that he can ask his guest three questions and then answer whatever three the guest proposes. Mime’s questions are easily answered by Wotan, and Wotan’s first two questions are easily answered by Mime. The last question, however, “Who will forge the sword?”, puts Mime in great jeopardy. Again, the last answer concerns an instrument of death—and again the contestant’s head is at stake.
In Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” Bassanio is confronted with three caskets: gold, silver, lead. A portrait of his beloved Portia is in one. The audience knows which casket is the right one, because it has seen two other suitors choose the wrong ones. What is at stake here is Bassanio’s love and his need for money, both of which Portia is willing to satisfy—and indeed she has a song sung to Bassanio before he chooses in which most of the end words rhyme with “lead.”
Consider, now. Lead is associated with bullets and coffins, and is found deep in the earth. Again, Death lies in the third riddle.
In the folk tale, Goldilocks enters the house of the Three Bears. From the best bowl of porridge to the best bed, the first and second choices are too extreme while the third is always “just right.” When the anthropomorphic family returns, the little human barely escapes with her life—and a record of breaking and entering, I suppose.
In myth, the shepherd Paris (or in some versions, Alexander) is suddenly faced with three naked goddesses, each of whom bribes him to award her the Golden Apple. Hera offers him the rule of Europe and Asia, Athena offers him the power to lead Troy to victory against the Greeks, Aphrodite offers him the fairest woman in the world. Since the latter is Helen of Sparta and her departure to Troy with Paris leads to the death of countless soldiers and citizens, that third choice seems yet again one of certain death.
One step back again to very early myth. The Moon appears in three phases. When full, it is Selina, Queen of Heaven. When it is in the shape of a bow, it is Artemis, the Huntress Queen of the Earth. When it is the New Moon (that is, no moon at all), it is black Hecate, Queen of the Underworld. And there we are again!
Freud considered this theme and concluded that humans will forever harbor a Death Wish, making choices that lead thereto. I see it from a different point of view. The very essence of three-ness is that three points form a triangle. Consider that nearly every comic opera plot concerns two characters of one sex in love with a third party of the other. In “Marriage of Figaro” there is the Figaro-Susanna-Count triangle; in “Oklahoma!” there is the Curly-Laurey-Judd triangle; in “The Mikado” we have Nanki Poo-Yum Yum-Ko Ko!
If we consider one of the males to be Thesis and the other Antithesis, there can be no Synthesis (i.e., a Happy Ending) unless the undesirable suitor bows out willingly or otherwise. This is the one of the great elements of comedy.
In tragic operas, however, that Synthesis can be brought about only in Death. So Aida and Radames can be united only in the tomb while Amneris curses the priests from above. Violetta and Mimi must both die of consumption because Life with the Beloved has proven impossible. Both Tannhauser and his Elizabeth must die to be united (one supposes) in a better world.
And of course the greatest example of love-in-death is that of Tristan and Isolde, as Wagner tells it. But more about that in some other essay.
Going full cycle, then, back to “Turandot,” her first kiss from a man suddenly brings her over to his way of looking at things and the opera ends happily (if one ignores the death of little Liu, the only really sympathetic character in this tale). And yet, a recent production of this opera (available on a DVD) takes a chance and has Turandot stab herself at the last moment, even as the chorus is singing about how wonderful life will be in Peking. Personally, I think the tenor doesn’t know how lucky he is!