Tuesday 17 November 2009

Review of Turandot

On Friday we went to see the new production of Puccini’s Turandot at the London Coliseum. ENO’s first ever production of Puccini’s final opera has been coming in for rather mixed reviews, especially as Rupert Goold’s production is distinctly untraditional.

First we have to understand that Puccini’s Turandot is no more Chinese than Sullivan’s Mikado is Japanese. The libretto for Puccini’s opera was based on a play by the Venetian playwright Gozzi, who in turn based his play on a Persian legend. So setting the opera in naturalistic China makes no particular sense and usually directors feel free to pick and choose the sort of exoticism that they use. But the main concern is to create a dramatically coherent production, not with ultra-naturalism; Turandot set in medieval China only makes sense if the drama works.

Of course, Puccini’s music is so infused with exoticism that it would be difficult to set the opera in, say, a spa town in the Italian Alps.

So we should not get too worked up if Rupert Goold has chosen to set his production of Turandot in a completely demented Chinese restaurant. In fact he and designers Miriam Buether and Katrina Lindsay have delivered up a vividly theatrical event. The first act takes place inside a Chinese restaurant, with the guards replaced by dominatrix waitresses. In the centre is the door to the kitchen, from which all sorts of nastiness appears. Ping, Pang and Pong are re-cast as chefs.

The first scene of Act 2 takes place on the fire escape stairs at the back of the restaurant, where Ping, Pang and Pong are taking a quick cigarette break, then the second half of Act 2 returns to the restaurant. Act 3 takes place in the kitchens, with the central cooking range being used for the torture of lieu.

So far so good and generally the dramaturgy works. But I had three main problems with the production. Firstly, the chorus are dressed as archetypes, from Elvis impersonators to nuns, as if they are intended to represent humanity, a detail which I thought meant that Goold was preaching a little too much. This was, however, a relatively minor point. More importantly, Goold has invented a character, the Writer, who is entirely silent but seems to direct the action, sometimes actually manipulating the singers and arranging the events. This is Goold’s take on the incompleteness of the opera. Because in Act 3, the Wreiter leaves the stage with Liu’s body, only to find he has been locked out and that the characters have taken over. Finally, Turandot kills him and during the final apotheosis the Emperor does not appear on stage, instead the singers stare out at us intently as if he is in the audience. Instead the slowly dying author takes centre stage. This was a mistake, too often Scott Handy’s Writer took attention away from the important cast members. If the production could be re-worked to avoid this unnecessary character then I think it would be a satisfying and vividly theatrical experience.

And the third problem? Well Goold is inexperienced in opera and in terms of generating good performances out of his singers, he seems to have had rather mixed success. Amanda Echalaz was outstanding as Liu and in her scenes in Act 3 turned in some of the finest singing and acting of the evening, her death scene was shattering. And there were good performances from James Creswell as Timur, Benedict Nelson as Ping, Richard Roberts as Pang and Christopher Turner as Pong. Here ENO had reaped strong rewards by casting a group of young singers in the roles. Nelson, Roberts and Turner were particularly lively and strong as the masks and made a good ensemble.

But with his two principals, Goold rather failed. Gwyn Hughes Jones sang Calaf strongly and impressively, but costumed in a black frock coat he failed to convey much of the Prince’s passion by any bodily movement. He was entirely too stiff and in Nessun Dorma Goold seems to have been unable to stop Jones signally emotion with stock telegraphic gestures. Still, Jones’s singing was such that you forgave him. And perhaps Goold intended the character to be stiff and impassive.

With Kirsten Blanck, Goold had a soprano who has all the notes for Turandot, which is a good start. Blanck does not seem to have the sort of laser sharp voice which I like in this role; her account of In questa regia was richly modulated with a strong vibrato. She has quite a warm voice and seemed to come over as impassive rather than icy. Vocal preferences apart her account of the role simply lacked the intensity which was needed. After all Gwyneth Jones did not have an ideal Turandot voice but her performance was so intense, so coruscating, that you couldn’t help but capitulate. Goold used the traditional version of the ending (Alfano with Toscanini’s cuts) so that we go briskly from Liu’s death to the end. This does not give the singer much time to thaw. Blanck was obviously trying to thaw, but this change did not quite reach her voice and visually she was limited by the rather over the top bride costume, with wacky make-up. It would have helped if some way could have been found for her appearance to reflect the change by jettisoning the head-dress or removing the make-up to make her seem more a real person. But on the plus side, this was Blanck’s first Turandot and she had learned it in English (not her native language, she is German).

If this new Turandot had had a performance of the title role delivered with the necessary coruscating intensity, then I think that this production would have come together. Goold and his designers have nearly got things right, and with a bit of tweaking and a more defined central performance, this could be a winner. It was certainly popular, as the auditorium was full.

In the pit Edward Gardner produced a dramatic, if rather brash, account of the score, but he engendered some terrific playing from his orchestra.

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