Review: TURANDOT, Royal Opera House

A production that, for all its splendour, feels a little dated almost 40 years on from its first outing

By: Mar. 13, 2023
Review: TURANDOT, Royal Opera House
Get Access To Every Broadway Story

Unlock access to every one of the hundreds of articles published daily on BroadwayWorld by logging in with one click.

Existing user? Just click login.

Review: TURANDOT, Royal Opera House Casting about for a title for our 80s and 90s football podcast, three friends and I settled on Nessun Dorma. The reference is to the opening for the BBC's coverage of the FIFA World Cup 1990, but it's also an indication of the cut-through the aria has achieved - Pavarotti, The Three Tenors, Gazza's tears and all that. Few (including us football tragics) knew much about the provenance of its emotional, artistic and musical exaltation and would have guessed it was something as Italian as pasta and gelato. As ever with opera, the truth is both more interesting and more problematic.

Back for the last time (or so it's reported) Andrei Serban's 1984 production sets a challenge for revival director, Jack Furness - what (or, indeed, whether), to say anything new with key themes that have lurched forward in the public's consciousness in the 21st century? Wisely, he leaves most of that for the Royal Opera House's successor to this much revived version, and lets us enjoy a spectacular, flawed and grandest of Grand Operas.

We open on a curtain-free stage, its levels filling with a masked chorus, pointedly reflecting our own levels on the other side of the fourth wall, its stage filling with yet more people. Whatever we are in for, we are not innocent onlookers but active participants like the mob at Newgate baying before the gallows. When the orchestra starts up suddenly with clanging chords, we know it's not going to be comfortable.

Giacomo Puccini, with a libretto by Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni (and some help from Franco Alfano - more on that later) hooked into the craze for The East he had explored earlier with Madama Butterfly, setting his last work in a legendary Peking. And, if you're catching a whiff of Orientalism there, you would not be wrong, even if three courtiers, Ping, Pang and Pong (really) owe as much to the Commedia dell'arte in Sally Jacobs' lavish design as they do to a malevolent version of The Mikado's three little maids from school.

These dancing demons orchestrate and revel in the ordeal that lies at the heart of Carlo Gozzi's tale of Princess Turandot who sets riddles for potential husbands and delights in their beheading if they fail - and fail they do. Until an unknown Prince, smitten instantly, takes up the challenge, answers correctly and wins her hand, much to her father's relief. But she is so committed to her relentless avenging of a violated ancestor that she refuses him until her heart melts at the Prince's commitment to her and they all live happily ever after - except the tortured woman, the former slave, Liù, who took her own life to save the object of her unrequited love, the now blissfully happy Prince.

Anna Pirozzi takes her time to appear as the icy maiden with the coldest of hearts, Turandot, but her voice speaks first to viciousness and then to accommodation and ultimately to love. Alfano's ending (Puccini's chain-smoking had caught up with him while he was locked in a creative impasse about how to resolve the character traits he so painstakingly and beautifully set up) is a little glib, but, for all but those deeply invested in speculating on what the composer might have done or in one of the alternative endings that have been performed occasionally, it hardly matters. We've been swept away long before that dodgy denouement.

Yonghoon Lee as the Prince can be a little static at times, contrasting with the sheer volume of movement dazzlingly choreographed by Kate Flatt, but nails his iconic aria and carries one of an array of glorious costumes with real dash. Alexander Kravets also impresses as an Emperor whose Parkinsonism marks him as halfway to the afterworld, a conclusion underlined by his descent on a cloud from the heavens when he, reluctantly, joins the earthly fray.

Three elements of opera's extraordinary concoction of emotional manipulation conspire to underpin the best elements of the show.

Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha Liù renders "Signore, ascolta!" with hopeless, doomed love for the Prince in her every breath, the soprano's connection with the audience as strong as any I can recall in this house. It is a sobering sight when the price of that love is underlined, as her body crosses the stage in the otherwise joyful celebration of love that yields a somewhat unexpected happy ending. The tumultuous applause the South African received at the curtain call was fully deserved.

Sir Antonio Pappano, conducting this work for the first time, drives his orchestra with as ruthless a baton as Turandot's hulkish executioner wielded his axe. With the exception of the courtiers' sinister clowning at the start of Act Two, the music pushes death to the centre of our thoughts with a almost gleeful commitment and then replaces it with love, Puccini's peerless capacity for running those fundamental human experiences in diabolical parallel, given the fullest expression.

It is the chorus that shines brightest of all. Rather than merely supporting the principals, they, adults and children, set the tone with that opening that invites, nay, compels us to become co-conspirators in Turandot's psychotic construction of a trail of severed heads. Later the chorus demands us to fear her retribution on all Peking if she cannot save herself from her unwanted marriage. Is it these post-pandemic times that allow us to empathise more with these masked people than we would were they not covered and endangered by an unpredictable threat? Whatever it was, the alchemy worked, as the frisson of complicity lasted throughout the performance.

The wonder of so many performers set before our eyes, of such spectacular assaults on ears and eyes and the inevitable questions raised about how to present this opera in the future, make for an evening of extremes. If the plotting can be a bit fuzzy, the conception a bit dated and the arias a little few and far between, the sheer scale, the supreme confidence and the wonder that it actually happens at all, is captivating. It sends you back out into a country that felt small three hours earlier but feels even smaller after witnessing a mythical China filtered through Italian sensibilities. The transformative power of great art had wrought its magic again.

Turandot is at the Royal Opera House until 13 April and in cinemas on 22 March

Photo Credit: Marc Brenner



To post a comment, you must register and login.

Vote Sponsor