Though Puccini's first interest in the subject was based on his reading of Friedrich Schiller's 1801 adaptation of the play, his work is most nearly based on the earlier text Turandot (1762) by Count Carlo Gozzi. The original story is based on one of the seven stories in the epic Haft Peykar (The Seven Beauties), a work of 12th-century Persian poet Nizami. Nizami aligned the seven stories with the seven days of the week, the seven colors and the seven corresponding planets. This particular story is the story of Tuesday, being told to King Bahram by his companion of the red dome, associated with Mars. In the very first line of this story, the protagonist is identified as a Russian princess. The name of the opera is based on Turan-Dokht (daughter of Turan), which is a common name used in Persian poetry for Central Asian princesses.
The opera's version of the story is set in China and involves Prince Calaf, who falls in love with the cold Princess Turandot. To obtain permission to marry her, a suitor has to solve three riddles; any wrong answer results in death. Calaf passes the test, but Turandot still refuses to marry him. He offers her a way out: if she is able to learn his name before dawn the next day, then at daybreak he will die. In the original story by Nizami, the princess sets four conditions. The first is "a good name and good deeds", and then the three challenges.
The opera was unfinished at the time of Puccini's death in 1924, and was completed by Franco Alfano in 1926. The first performance was held at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan on 25 April 1926 and conducted by Arturo Toscanini. This performance included only Puccini's music and not Alfano's additions. The first performance of the opera as completed by Alfano was the following night, 26 April, although it is disputed whether this was conducted by Toscanini again or by Ettore Panizza.
Turandot is a Persian word and name that means "the daughter of Turan", Turan being a region of Central Asia, formerly part of the Persian Empire. The name of the opera is taken from Persian Turandokht (توراندخت), with dokht being a contraction of dokhtar (daughter); the kh and t are both pronounced. However, note that the original protagonist in Nizami's story is identified in the very first line of the Persian poem as being from Russia. The story is known as the story of the "Red Dome" among the "Seven Domes" (Haft Ghonbad) stories in Nizami's Haft Peykar (i.e., the seven figures or beauties).
According to Puccini scholar
Patrick Vincent Casali, the final t is silent in the opera's and title character's name, making it sound [turanˈdo]. Soprano Rosa Raisa, who created the title role, says that Puccini never pronounced the final t. Eva Turner, a prominent Turandot, did not pronounce the final t, as television interviews with her attest. Casali also maintains that the musical setting of many of Calaf's utterances of the name makes sounding the final t all but impossible. On the other hand, Simonetta Puccini, the composer's granddaughter and keeper of the Villa Puccini and Mausoleum, has said that the final t must be pronounced.
Italo Marchini questioned her about this in 2002. Ms. Puccini said that in Italian the name would be Turandotta. In the Venetian dialect of Carlo Gozzi the final syllables are usually dropped and words end in a consonant, ergo Turandott, as the name has been made Venetian.
In 1710, while writing the first biography of Genghis Khan, the French scholar François Pétis de La Croix published a book of tales and fables combining various Asian literary themes. One of his longest and best stories derived from the history of Mongol princess Khutulun. In his adaptation, however, she bore the title Turandot, meaning "Turkish Daughter", the daughter of Kaidu. Instead of challenging her suitors in wrestling, Pétis de La Croix had her confront them with three riddles. In his more dramatic version, instead of wagering mere horses, the suitor had to forfeit his life if he failed to answer correctly.
Fifty years later, the popular Italian playwright Carlo Gozzi made her story into a drama of a "tigerish woman" of "unrelenting pride". In a combined effort by two of the greatest literary talents of the era, Friedrich von Schiller translated the play into German as Turandot, Prinzessin von China, and Goethe directed it on the stage in Weimar in 1802. – Jack Weatherford