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Reviews

<em>Turandot </em>, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
07 Jul 2017

Fairytale Spectacle: Turandot at the ROH

Andrei Serban’s 1984 production of Turandot has returned to the Royal Opera House, for its sixteenth revival, and it remains a visual feast. The principals’ raw silk costumes, intricately embroidered and patterned, splash vibrant primary hues against the shadowy tiers which house the red-masked Chorus to the rear.

Turandot, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Turandot

Photo credit: Tristram Kenton

 

Sally Jacobs’ drum-shaped balconies create a frame for Puccini’s enigmatic, imperfect masterpiece, the onlookers forming a sort of Greek Chorus, watching the horrors unfold. Baying for blood like sadistic spectators at a gladiatorial arena, they roar with relish in the opening scene as the Mandarin reads his proclamation of the impending execution of the Prince of Persia.

Despite the passing years, the oriental stylisation - visual and kinetic - remains striking. Giant, grimacing severed heads top towering poles, their blood-red streamers testifying to the agonies suffered by Turandot’s decapitated suitors. The Mandarin mounts a rolling tower to thunder his edicts and incite the crowd’s bloodlust. Emperor Altoum floats down from the fly-loft on a cloud-cushioned golden throne. There is a mammoth gong, a scything executioner’s sword, a giant whetstone transported on an elaborate dragon-cart. When the sky grows dark, in anticipation of Turandot’s delivery of her tyrannous decree, the Chorus’s invocation to the moon initiates the descent of an immense canvas moon which eclipses much of the stage.

Production image Turandot 2.jpg Photo credit: Tristram Kenton.

Revival director Andrew Sinclair has done a good job, working with original choreographer Kate Flatt, to ensure that the t’ai chi-based movements of the white-masked dancers are slick and fresh. Those ‘grotesque imperial ministers’, Ping, Pang and Pong, cavort with commedia -like outlandishness - perhaps a reminder that the inspiration for Puccini’s opera came from a commedia dell’arte play written in 1762 by Carlo Gozzi, which itself drew upon ‘The Story of Prince Calaf and the Princess of China’ from a collection of Persian fairy tales, The Thousand and One Days.

Indeed, this dialogue of cultures is relevant, for while the production resonates with myth and ritual, it’s a bit of a hotchpotch, with ‘oriental’ interpreted rather loosely (there’s a nod, surely, to Japanese Kabuki and Noh theatre), as well as a few touches of Brechtian alienation. But, this doesn’t really matter; after all, Puccini’s score is itself eclectic and episodic, juxtaposing a plurality of styles and allusions. If Serban and Jacobs have assembled a cultural smorgasbord, then it’s a beautiful and enchanting one; and the visual beauty is often powerfully and disturbingly at odds with the barbarity of the drama.

It also makes a loud impact. In Turandot, Puccini calls for huge orchestral resources, both in the pit and on stage, and conductor Dan Ettinger lets his instrumentalists off the leash. Seated in the Stalls Circle, I’m sure I felt the auditorium tremble when the death-knell drumming pounded during Turandot’s pronouncement of the riddles, and in Act 2 the brass blazed with imperial majesty. Ettinger might have reined things in a bit at times - the ‘power’ of the score was generated by turning the volume up as far as it would go, rather than through surging, well-crafted fullness of sound - as the singers were required to project over unalleviated orchestral swells.

Fortunately, the principals had the necessary vocal strength and stamina. Christine Goerke used her huge voice to capture the heartlessness of the unsympathetic ‘heroine’, who in Serban’s vision is an icy she-devil who delights in sending her hapless suitors to their grisly deaths. Goerke began ‘In questa reggia’ a little cautiously but as she proclaimed the three enigmas there was no doubting Turandot’s venom. Goerke’s soprano gained in focus as the performance proceeded and she was at her best in the final act, her voice sonorous and gleaming. There was little sense, though, of the princess’s ‘inner life’; perhaps, this inevitably remains an enigma - the opera’s unanswered riddle -but if we are to believe in Turandot’s redemption then surely we need to be permitted a little intimacy with the workings of her soul?

Turandot-ROH-2813 CHRISTINE GOERKE AS PRINCESS TURANDOT, ALEKSANDRS ANTONENKO AS CALAF (C) ROH. PHOTO BY TRISTRAM KENTON.jpgChristine Goerke (Turandot), Aleksandrs Antonenko (Calaf). Photo credit: Tristram Kenton.

Aleksandrs Antonenko was a heroic rather than chivalrous Calaf - no-one would have any chance of forty winks during this ‘Nessun dorma’ - but he placed the notes with control and pushed through the soaring lines with warm amplification. Antonenko’s didn’t really bother to act, though the large props and choreographed acrobatics didn’t leave much room for subtle engagement between the characters. In any case, it’s hard to make Calaf’s sudden enthrallment to Turandot’s ‘charms’ credible, and Antonenko was a fittingly gallant hero who brought daylight back to Turandot’s night-dominated realm and restored the patriarchal gender hierarchy.

Turandot-ROH-162 ALEKSANDRS ANTONENKO AS CALAF, IN SUNG SIM AS TIMUR, HIBLA GERZMAVA AS LIÙ (C) ROH. PHOTO BY TRISTRAM KENTON.jpg Aleksandrs Antonenko (Calaf), In Sung Sim (Timur), Hibla Gerzmava (Liù). Photo credit: Tristram Kenton.

As Liù - Puccini’s archetypal suffering heroine, subservient, innocent, self-sacrificing - Hibla Gerzmava sang with a winningly sweet tone balanced by innate strength. During her fifteen-minutes of emotional torment in the final act, Gerzmava movingly conveyed the unconditional love which underpins Liù’s purity.

Yury Yurchuk was an authoritative Mandarin, though I thought that In Sung Sim’s Timur needed a bit more nobility and stature. Robin Leggate brought out the Emperor’s gentility and regretfulness, in contrast to the vicious cruelty of Ping (Michel de Souza), Pang (Aled Hall) and Pong (Pavel Petrov), who formed a well-integrated trio but had little to distinguish them as individuals.

Turandot-ROH-701 MICHEL DE SOUZA AS PING, PAVEL PETROV AS PONG, ALED HALL AS PANG, ALEKSANDRS ANTONENKO AS CALAF (C) ROH. PHOTO BY TRISTRAM KENTON.jpgMichel de Souza (Ping), Pavel Petrov (Pong), Aled Hall (Pang), Aleksandrs Antonenko (Calaf). Photo credit: Tristram Kenton.

The main weakness of Serban’s production is that it denies us understanding of the causes of Turandot’s apparent inhumanity, and thus makes her atonement less convincing. The narration in which she explains the reasons for her misogyny, should make us understand that she speaks as an avenger, as one whose ancestress who was raped and murdered thousands of years ago. As one whose violence is retribution for the violence done by men to all women; as one determined to the be agent of her own destiny. Serban creates little sense of the emotional energies which drive the drama and shape the dynamic between Turandot and Calaf. And, the sense of emotional stasis is exacerbated by the literal stasis of the chorus - a result of lack of time to stage the Chorus in the hasty run-up to the production’s premiere as part of the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival in Los Angeles - though the ROH Chorus were, as ever, in tremendous voice as they expressed their perverted pleasure at the executioner’s bloody deeds.

Despite this misgiving, this production just about avoids the composer’s own tendency to indulge in kitsch and offers fairy-tale spectacle with some spectacular singing. A real summer treat.

Claire Seymour

Giacomo Puccini: Turandot

Princess Turandot - Christine Goerke, Calaf - Aleksandrs Antonenko, Liù - Hibla Gerzmava, Timur - In Sung Sim, Ping - Michel de Souza, Pang - Aled Hall, Pong - Pavel Petrov, Emperor Altoum - Robin Leggate, Mandarin - Yuriy Yurchuk; Director - Andrei Serban, Conductor - Dan Ettinger Designer - Sally Jacobs, Lighting designer - F. Mitchell Dana, Choreographer - Kate Flatt, Choreologist - Tatiana Novaes Coelho, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Royal Opera Chorus (Chorus Director, William Spaulding).

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London; Wednesday 5th July 2017.

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