The Royal Opera – Turandot

Turandot – Lyric drama in three acts and five scenes to a libretto by Giuseppe Adami & Renato Simoni after Carlo Gozzi [Sung in Italian with English surtitles; final scene performed in the shortened version of the completion by Franco Alfano]

Mandarin – Kostas Smoriginas
Liù – Svetla Vassilieva
Timur – Paata Burchuladze
Prince Calaf – José Cura
Ping – Giorgio Caodura
Pang – Ji-Min Park
Pong – Alasdair Elliott
Princess Turandot – Elizabeth Connell
Emperor Altoum – Robert Tear

Anne Osborne & Marianne Cotterill (solo sopranos)

The Royal Opera Chorus

The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Nicola Luisotti

Andrei Serban – Original production
Jeremy Sutcliffe – Revival director
Sally Jacobs – Designs
F. Mitchell Dana – Lighting design
Kate Flatt – Original choreography
Anne Whitley – Choreography rehearsal

Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: 22 December, 2008
Venue: The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

Paata Burchuladze as Timur & Svetla Vassilieva as Liù. ©Johan Perrson First to be said is that this revival of “Turandot” boasts some exceptional conducting by Nicola Luisotti who is the music director designate of San Francisco Opera. Together with The Royal Opera Orchestra on absolutely blistering form he delivered a taut, theatrical and thrilling interpretation of Puccini’s wonderfully colourful score. It had pace and captured absolutely the tinta of the piece and the elemental originality of some of the composer’s most progressive orchestration. The sheer volume of the early pages – particularly the moment when the bloodthirsty chorus summons the executioner to behead the unfortunate Prince of Persia – was exhilarating and appropriately savage. One was also nervous for the principal singers. However, when their moments came Luisotti was unfailingly responsive to their needs – the texture was kept remarkably spare and this allowed the details to emerge afresh. The undercurrents to the “silencio, silencio” passage in Act One and to the delivery of Turandot’s second riddle were instances in point. The placing of the harps in the Stalls Circle also helped one appreciate how vital their contribution. The percussion had a field day! Tempos were generally fleet and the gradual acceleration of tempo at the end of Act One before Calaf strikes the gong was perfectly judged. How the piece needs this immediacy of approach rather than an over-indulgent one!

José Cura as Calaf & Iréne Theorin as Princess Turandot. ©Johan Perrson The 24-year-old production of Andrei Serban in Sally Jacobs’s suitably claustrophobic designs continues to revive wonderfully well. With its dark background setting and the glitter of the gold and the washes of red and white and other primary colours in the costuming it still looks fantastic, and those back-lit grilles and effective use of stage smoke conjure up a potent sense of a society on the edge. It does have its problematic moments, particularly on repeated viewing. These are particularly apparent in Act 3 where the direction is less even. One never quite gets the sense of desperation of the people of Peking and in particular of Ping, Pang and Pong that is engendered by the night of violence that ensues when Turandot is trying to determine Calaf’s name before dawn. Of course those scenes are probably not helped by immediately following the ‘Nessun dorma’ moment which, thanks to Pavarotti and others, seems to have become the focus of any performance of this work – and quite inappropriately.

José Cura as Calaf & Robert Tear as Emperor Altoum. ©Johan PerrsonJosé Cura is certainly not immune to the temptation of milking this moment, unleashing his longest long note at the ending. Calaf is not the most engaging of heroes; indeed his single-minded pursuit of Turandot at the expense of the more sympathetic Liù makes him decidedly unappealing. Cura’s voice is not perfectly schooled but it has an appealing baritonal timbre and even if he’s occasionally cavalier with note values he does know how to hold a stage.

At this performance the title role was to have been sung by Iréne Theorin, but she had developed a severe cold and was replaced by Elizabeth Connell who is currently appearing as the Mother in ROH’s “Hänsel und Gretel”. She has recently sung the role in Hamburg, but even with the short (if any?) rehearsal time she must have been allotted she gave a considered and highly individual account of the role. She has the range and vocal guns for the part, but not for her a ‘stand and sock it to ‘em’ sort of interpretation. This Turandot was all too aware of her own vulnerability and the potential for disaster when she first spots Calaf. “In questa reggia” was almost introspective and the subsequent riddles were delivered powerfully, but tinged with a sense of anxiety and then desperation. The text was, for once, delivered as if every word mattered. She should get a revival of her own and soon!

For Liù Svetla Vassilieva has a secure technique to float those high phrases but the tone can develop a slight edge and lacks the creamy focussed qualities of some past interpreters in this production’s history. Paata Burchuladze was a resonant Timur, even if his Italian vowel-sounds are strange at times. Kostas Smoriginas was a stalwart Mandarin, and the Ping, Pang and Pong trio were well matched if slightly lacking in individuality – again that is more the fault of the production though. Robert Tear’s benignly weary Emperor made his mark too. The augmented Chorus was at its very best, the Children’s Chorus very fine indeed. This revival is strong and will be enjoyed by any newcomer to the work. Die-hards too will find much to enjoy, especially the vivid playing and conducting.

  • Further performances with this cast (Theorin as Turandot) on 27 & 29 December and 12, 14, 17, 20 & 23 January
  • The performances on 2, 5 & 8 January have the four principal roles alternatively cast including Johan Botha as Calaf and Jennifer Wilson as Turandot
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera
  • Interview with Robert Tear

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