Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

First Night of the BBC Proms : Elgar The Kingdom

The BBC Proms 2014 season began with Sir Edward Elgars The Kingdom (1903-6). It was a good start to the season,which commemorates the start of the First World War. From that perspective Sir Andrew Davis's The Kingdom moved me deeply.

Le nozze di Figaro, Munich

One is unlikely to come across a cast of Figaro principals much better than this today, and the virtues of this performance indeed proved to be primarily vocal.

James Gilchrist at Wigmore Hall

Assured elegance, care and thoughtfulness characterised tenor James Gilchrist’s performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang at the Wigmore Hall, the cycles’ two poets framing a compelling interpretation of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.

Music for a While: Improvisations on Henry Purcell

‘Music for a while shall all your cares beguile.’ Dryden’s words have never seemed as apt as at the conclusion of this wonderful sequence of improvisations on Purcell’s songs and arias, interspersed with instrumental chaconnes and toccatas, by L’Arpeggiata.

Nabucco at Orange

The acoustic of the gigantic Théâtre Antique Romain at Orange cannot but astonish its nine thousand spectators, the nearly one hundred meter breadth of the its proscenium inspires awe. There was excited anticipation for this performance of Verdi’s first masterpiece.

Richard Strauss: Notturno

Richard Strauss may be most closely associated with the soprano voice but this recording of a selection of the composer’s lieder by baritone Thomas Hampson is a welcome reminder that the rapt lyricism of Strauss’s settings can be rendered with equal beauty and character by the low male voice.

Saint Louis: A Hit is a Hit is a Hit

Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has once again staked claim to being the summer festival “of choice” in the US, not least of all for having mounted another superlative world premiere.

La Flûte Enchantée (2e Acte)
at the Aix Festival

In past years the operas of the Aix Festival that took place in the Grand Théâtre de Provence began at 8 pm. The Magic Flute began at 7 pm, or would have had not the infamous intermittents (seasonal theatrical employees) demanded to speak to the audience.

Ariodante at the Aix Festival

High drama in Aix. Three scenarios in conflict — those of G.F. Handel, Richard Jones and the intermittents (disgruntled seasonal theatrical employees). Make that four — mother nature.

Lucy Crowe, Wigmore Hall

The programme declared that ‘music, water and night’ was the connecting thread running through this diverse collection of songs, performed by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook, but in fact there was little need to seek a unifying element for these eclectic works allowed Crowe to demonstrate her expressive range — and offered the audience the opportunity to hear some interesting rarities.

The Turn of the Screw, Holland Park

‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough … and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy … will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.

Plenty of Va-Va-Vroom: La Fille du Regiment, Iford

It is not often that concept, mood, music and place coincide perfectly. On the first night of Opera della Luna’s La Fille du Regiment at Iford Opera in Wiltshire, England we arrived with doubts (rather large doubts it should be admitted)as to whether Donizetti’s “naive and vulgar” romp of militarism and proto-feminism, peopled with hordes of gun-toting soldiers and praying peasants, could hardly be contained, surely, inside Iford’s tiny cloister?

La finta giardiniera, Glyndebourne

‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,/ Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends.’

Sophie Karthäuser, Wigmore Hall

Belgian soprano Sophie Karthäuser has a rich range of vocal resources upon which to draw: she has power and also precision; her top is bright and glinting and it is complemented by a surprisingly full and rich lower register; she can charm with a flowing lyrical line, but is also willing to take musical risks to convey emotion and embody character.

Ariadne auf Naxos, Royal Opera

‘When two men like us set out to produce a “trifle”, it has to become a very serious trifle’, wrote Hofmannsthal to Strauss during the gestation of their opera about opera.

Leoš Janáček : The Cunning Little Vixen, Garsington Opera at Wormsley

Janáček started The Cunning Little Vixen on the cusp of old age in 1922 and there is something deeply elegiac about it.

La Traviata in Marseille

It took only a couple of years for Il trovatore and Rigoletto to make it from Italy to the Opéra de Marseille, but it took La traviata (Venice, 1853) sixteen years (Marseille, 1869).

Madama Butterfly in San Francisco

Gesamtkunstwerk, synthesis of fable, sound, shape and color in art, may have been made famous by Richard Wagner, and perhaps never more perfectly realized than just now by San Francisco Opera.

Luca Francesconi : Quartett, Linbury Studio Theatre, London

Luca Francesconi is well-respected in the avant garde. His music has been championed by the Arditti Quartett and features regularly in new music festivals. His opera Quartett has at last reached London after well-received performances in Milan and Amsterdam.

Puccini Manon Lescaut, Royal Opera House, London

Manon Lescaut at the Royal Opera House, London, brings out the humanity which lies beneath Puccini's music. The composer was drawn to what we'd now called "outsiders. In Manon Lescaut, Puccini describes his anti-heroine with unsentimental honesty. His lush harmonies describe the way she abandons herself to luxury, but he doesn't lose sight of the moral toughness at the heart of Abbé Prévost's story, Manon is sensual but, like her brother, fatally obssessed with material things. Only when she has lost everything else does she find true values through love..

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

Kirsten Blanck as Princess Turandot [Photo by Catherine Ashmore courtesy of English National Opera]
13 Oct 2009

Turandot at ENO

A writer goes to dine in an urban Chinese restaurant, where his eye is caught by a distressed young woman among the crowd of diners.

Giacomo Puccini: Turandot

Princess Turandot: Kirsten Blanck; Calaf: Gwyn Hughes Jones; Liù: Amanda Echalaz; Timur: James Creswell; Emperor Altoum: Stuart Kale; Mandarin: Iain Paterson; Ping: Benedict Nelson; Pang: Richard Roberts; Pong: Christopher Turner. Conductor: Edward Gardner; Director: Rupert Goold; Associate Director/Choreographer: Aletta Collins; Set Designer: Miriam Buether; Costume Designer: Katrina Lindsay; Lighting Designer: Rick Fisher; Video Art and Design: Lorna Heavey; Translator: William Radice

Above: Kirsten Blanck as Princess Turandot

All photos by Catherine Ashmore courtesy of English National Opera

 

He builds a bloody, Tarantino-esque fantasy plot around her and her surroundings, stepping in and manipulating the world he has created until the characters in his nightmarish scenario eventually become so real that they destroy not just the girl but the writer too.

The girl is Liù, the story Turandot, and the writer very likely Puccini himself (though no great effort is made to give actor Scott Handy the composer’s likeness). Puccini loved Liù as a character, and died after creating her death scene. Rupert Goold’s production ends with the dying writer (here, slashed through the stomach by Turandot’s sword just as Calaf overpowers her with a kiss) taking centre stage, while the triùmphantly united Calaf and Turandot are relegated to either side.

It wasn’t until an hour after the final curtain, when I sat down to draft this review after reading the programme notes in detail on my bus ride home, that the directorial conceit began to form a joined-up entity in my mind and I finally worked out — I think — what was supposed to be going on. While I was sitting in the Coliseum with it happening in front of me, it made no sense whatsoever, and that’s poor theatre by anybody’s standards. Turandot should be a garish nightmare, and this was — unfortunately, not always in the way the director intended. From the chorus, which looked as if it had been plucked from a generic modern-dress performance of Act 2 of La bohème (nuns, transsexuals, Elvis impersonators, dominatrices…), to the murderous dancers with chefs’ trousers and pigs’ heads, to the Emperor Altoum (eloquently sung by Stuart Kale) who was played as an eccentric old drunk that the ‘writer’ decides to use as a pawn in his story, to Turandot’s creepy little servant-girl (or familiar spirit?) in her First Communion outfit — none of it bore any relation either to the plot or to Puccini’s music.

Kirsten Blanck’s soft-grained voice and dry European consonants take away any real cutting edge from her soprano, but she has a voice that is more than adequate for such a big role in such a big theatre, and rides the Act 2 ensemble very effectively. It’s just a shame that her character is given no dramatic context whatever. In the first act, Calaf falls in love not with the real Turandot but with a giant ice-sculpture facsimile of her; from her first appearance ‘in the flesh’ in Act 2, she looks like a demented bride.

The vocal highlights of this production come from Gwyn Hughes Jones as Calaf and Amanda Echalaz as Liù. Hughes Jones sings gloriously, even if he sounds underpowered once the heavy orchestration of the Alfano ending is underway. Not a natural stage creature, he fails to create much of a character — like Blanck, he has next to no help from the director in doing so. Just why, exactly, does he fall instantly in love? And what is it about him that eventually melts the ice princess? He has vocal ardour in spades, but his physical presence is oddly dispassionate. As for Echalaz — after a few years of spectacular performances for smaller UK companies like ETO and Opera Holland Park, the South African soprano’s star is at last truly in the ascendant. It is a large voice and there is some work she could still do on some of the more delicate parts of the role, but she has a magnetic stage presence and (despite a truly horrible costume) gave a performance of real heart. The American bass James Cresswell was a sincerely sung, sympathetic Timur.

Turandot_002.gifAmanda Echalaz as Liù and Gwyn Hughes Jones as Calaf

In the pit, Ed Gardner is on top form, making the lyrical passages bloom and the brutal ones blaze, while the ENO Chorus produce a massive and impressive sound. Most of William Radice’s translation is pretty respectable, but there are a few obvious problems which really need to be ironed out: in one of the opera’s subtlest and most legato passages, the moon chorus in Act 1, the words are perversely set against the beat, while in Act 3 the principals are subjected to rather a lot of unkind ‘i’ and ‘ee’ vowels on climactic high notes. And Pang’s nostalgia for his ‘gardens near Kiù’ was always destined to raise an unintentional titter from a London audience.

Turandot_003.gifFull Stage

The trio of ministers was plagued by illness; Peter van Hulle replaced Christopher Turner as Pong, while Richard Roberts (announced as suffering from a throat infection but willing to sing anyway) croaked his way through the first act before yielding to understudy Gareth Huw John (singing from the side of the stage) for the rest of the opera. Fortunately Benedict Nelson, the Ping, was not only completely healthy but in particularly fine voice.

Turandot was really the last of the great repertoire standards to get an up-to-date production in London. It is not the nightmare-Chinese-restaurant setting (with sets imaginatively conceived by Miriam Buether) that ruins Goold’s vision of the opera but his willingness to allow many of the opera’s big climaxes to take second place to the point he wants to make about the composer’s relationship with the piece. As such, it is a frustrating experience.

Ruth Elleson © 2009

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):