Tuesday 10 September 2013

Lise Lindstrom as Turandot at Covent Garden

Turandot - Royal Opera House, 2008 (c) Johan Persson
The Royal Opera's production of Puccini's Turandot is nearly 30 years old. Created for the 1984 Olympics, Andrei Serban's production has been revived 15 times. This latest revival opened on September 9 2013 (the 259th performance of the opera at Covent Garden) It featured the Covent Garden debuts of soprano Lise Lindstrom in the title role and conductor Henrik Nanasi, with Marco Berti singing his first Calaf at Covent Garden, and Eri Nakamura singing her first Liu there. The masks were played by Dionysios Sourbis, David Butt Philip and Doug Jones. The production is in good health and the revival, directed by Andrew Sinclair, was as crisp and involving as ever.

When I attended Covent Garden in the 1970's and early 1980's quite a number of the productions were elderly, dating back 20 or 30 years and it showed. They were old fashioned and unsatisfactory in revival. Whereas Serban's production has aged well and does not seem in the least bit dated.

The production, in striking designs by Sally Jacobs and with extensive choreography by Kate Flatt, is lively, busy and full of incident, so that the principals need to give strong performances otherwise the production itself dominates. Puccini gives performers something of a problem in the opera, the whole of the first act and a half revolves around the character of Turandot, but she does not sing. There was a feeling at this performance that in act one, the principals had not found their form and that the drama was not properly centred.

But the opera opened well, with Michel de Souza (on the company's Jette Park Young Artists Scheme) giving a commanding performance as the Mandarin.

Marco Berti, singing his first Calaf at Covent Garden, had a robust and thrilling tenor voice thankfully also with a willingness to moderate his tone and sing with a degree of subtlety. But his stage demeanour was rather stiff and failed to catch fire in the first act. Non piangere Liu though nicely shaped, did not touch the heart. His diction throughout was superb and it was great to hear Italian sung by a native.

The three masks, Ping, Pang and Pong were performed by three young singers, Dionysios Sourbis, David Butt Philip and Doug Jones. David Butt Philip is also on the Jette Parker Young Artists programme. In this production the roles are very active and all three brought and admirable physicality to their performances, but I found that they did not seem entirely threatening enough. Balance also was not ideal with the middle of the three voices not quite projected enough, seeming slightly weaker.

 Eri Nakamura, a former Jette Parker Young Artist returning to sing her first Liu at Covent Garden. She has a vibrant lyric voice with a warm vibrato, which she makes intelligent use of. She made a touching Liu giving a finely shaped performance of Signore ascolta. She was well supported by the noble Timur of Raymond Aceto.

The first scene of act two gave the three masks a chance to show their individual talents. Dionysios Sourbis as Ping had a fine, strongly projected baritone voice and impressed with his solo, both David Butt Philip and Doug Jones contributed nicely turned solo moments. The interaction between the three was lively and well coordinated, the three made a great dramatic ensemble but I did rather keep coming back to the issue of balance of the voices.

But throughout the first act and a half, there was also a slight feeling of marking time, that we were waiting for Turandot's entry. And we weren't disappointed. Tall and slim with a brilliant dramatic voice, Lise Lindstrom made a striking Turandot. The opening of In questa reggia seemed to be threatened with too much vibrato. But she settled down and delivered a highly controlled account of the aria, singing with admirable laser-like brightness and control.

This production was created originally for the Turandot of Gwynneth Jones, a performance of great dramatic power and vivid characterisation, but not notable for the stability of Jones's voice. By the time the production opened in 1984 her strong vibrato was in danger of turning into a wobble. My ideal Turandot remains Eva Turner whose live recording of the Riddle Scene (made in 1936 with Martinelli and John Barbirolli) has hardly been bettered. In the theatre I favour sopranos with laser like control over those with heavily vibrato laden dramatic voices, which means that sopranos like Rita Hunter (with WNO) and Jane Eaglen (in this production at Covent Garden), made the strongest impact. Regretably I never saw the late Elizabeth Connell in the role.

Berti made a strong impact in his decisive appeal to the Emperor (Alasdair Elliott) at the opening of the scene, and went on to join Lindstrom for a thrilling account of the riddle scene. Both voices balanced well and the two artists made this a real dramatic moment, rather than purely a musical one. Whilst Berti remained a bit stiff dramatically, this translated into decisiveness and nobility. Lindstrom, by contrast, was superb at suggesting the neurotic nature of Turandot's obsession. Lindstrom was a traditional Turandot, coolly icy with a definite dislike of being touched.

Act three opens, of course, with the best known aria in the opera Nessun dorma. Berti was robust here, his voice displaying an admirable consistency throughout the range as well as some sensibility and subtlety. Admirably, he did not grandstand, and the ending was neatly done.

In her two solos in this act Nakamura was supremely touching as Liu, characterful and quite strong. But she shaped Puccini's lines finely, with a nice vibrancy, and certainly touched the heart. The torture scene was well shaped by conductor Henrik Nanasi and there was a feeling of the whole ensemble building inexorable, in just the right way, towards Liu's death. As in the first act, the three masks could have been edgier but Lindstrom's Turandot was a wonderfully icy and commanding presence.

Berti almost used his size to impose himself on Lindstrom and her capitulation, when it came, was sudden and total. Not for the first time, I regretted the lack of Alfano's full ending with the extension to the two solo roles. I have heard the full Alfano ending in performance, both Chelsea Opera Group and Midsummer Opera have performed it. On disc, Josephine Barstow recorded a memorable performance. And all have convinced me that, though it does mean the inclusion of more music by Alfano (as opposed to Alfano/Puccini) it makes better dramatic sense. The standard version's alarming brevity just does not work for me. One thing I always miss. In the full Alfano ending the two principals have ringing unison top C's over the top of the final chorus, a brilliant and thrilling effect.

Conductor Henrik Nanasi displayed a nice feel for Puccini's opera and the ebb and flow of the music, but in some of the early scenes there was a worrying lack of crispness in the coordination between chorus and pit. The chorus did not seem to be on quite top form, and their off-stage contributions in act three were rather rough.

This performance saw some notable debuts and had some powerful individual performances, but it did not quite add up to a complete experience. Though this may develop over the run, and the piece is being broadcast live in cinemas on 17 September.

My review of the opera is on OperaToday.com

Elsewhere on this blog:


  1. I agree with you about the full Alfano ending - I went to the premiere at the Barbican with Sylvia Sass and Bonisolli - overwhelming. But I don't agree with your description of Gwyneth Jones in 1984. She was at the peak of her career then and was a stunning Turandot and outshone even Dimitrova and Marton who also sang in the same season. Jones was televised a couple of years later and is still stunning (I have a copy of that broadcast on DVD). Performances in later years is another matter.
    You obviously never saw Gertrude Grob-Prandl, Amy Shuard, Nilsson - all at Covent Garden, or Pauline Tinsley and Shafinskaya for WNO - all magnificent in their different ways. Luckily - I saw them all.

  2. I'm pleased to find others out there who think the same about the Alfano ending, but we'd have agree to disagree about Gwyneth Jones circa 1984. I missed Pauline Tinsley at WNO (though did hear Rita Hunter in the same production); having seen Tinsely as Elektra I profoundly regret never seeing her Turandot.



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