Royal Opera Returns to the Screen with Turandot

20/09/2013

 Puccini, Turandot: Soloists, Royal Opera House Chorus and Orchestra / Henrik Nánási (conductor) in Andrei Serban’s 1984 production with designs by Sally Jacobs. Broadcast to The May Fair Hotel, Mayfair, London. 18.9.2013. (JPr)

LINDSTROM AS TURANDOT, BERTI AS CALAF (C) KENTON ROH

Lise Lindstrom (Turandot) & Marco Berti (Calaf) (c) Tristam Kenton/ROH

Cast:

Princess Turandot: Lise Lindstrom
Emperor Altoum: Alasdair Elliott
Timur:  Raymond Aceto
Calaf:  Marco Berti
Liù:    Eri Nakamura
Ping:   Dionysios Sourbis
Pang:   David Butt Philip
Pong:   Doug Jones
Mandarin: Michel de Souza

Ahead of this gala screening of Turandot, music director, Antonio Pappano, launched the Royal Opera House’s Live Cinema Season and reminded the great and the good present how ‘Last season, over 32,000 people watched The Nutcracker: it was the second highest grossing film that night – nestled between The Hobbit and Skyfall’. He continued: ‘In the cinema you feel like you have the best seat in the house. The cinema experience brings you closer: you see the sweat and expression on the faces of some of the finest singers and dancers on stage. I am very much looking forward to this evening, along with the other 999 sites sharing in this wonderful experience.’

Bryan Hymel, who sings the role of Henri for the live cinema relay of forthcoming new production of Les Vêpres siciliennes, revealed how ’When performing in a live cinema relay, it is forever in your mind that it’s not just the people in the auditorium you are performing for, but some twenty to thirty thousand people across the globe. The energy of it being live is just a great new experience as you have to be so mindful of the details – the eyes and face.’ Like Pappano, he said ‘In the cinema, you honestly have the best seat in the house.’

After the success of the 2012/13 Season, which attracted audiences of up to 40,000, the Live Cinema Season 2013/14 has expanded to more than 1,000 cinemas across 40 countries, and features an unprecedented five Royal Opera and five Royal Ballet productions. Turandot was a good choice as another crowd pleaser to start this season of broadcasts.

With this production I am in familiar territory, as this is a staging I have been following on and off since it first appeared at Covent Garden in September 1984. When I last saw this in the Royal Opera House I remember writing how I overheard some people commenting they didn’t think the principals were doing (i.e. acting) very much and wrote how it seems twenty-first century opera audiences need to be placated with something going on all the time. Andrei Serban’s production, with Sally Jacob’s appropriately vibrantly colourful designs, evoke a theatrical China without resorting to kitsch. Why ‘theatrical’? Well it was a revelation to hear Sally Jacob reveal something I didn’t know after nearly 30 years, how together with Serban, they had devised this Turandot as ‘a series of  episodes performed to an audience in the opera house … and a Chinese audience in a pagoda’.

Indeed apart from a number of processions and some ceremonial dancers very little does indeed happen: Calaf, Turandot, Liù and Timur just walk on, off and around each other as appropriate. In fact, it is ideal for the cinema screen as Ian Russell’s cameras did not have to be roaming all over the place – the extreme close-ups did, however, need some signs of life from all the principals and here didn’t always get it. The watching audience is encouraged to send in tweets during the show and the best one for me was that someone thought ‘it’s like listening with a microscope’ – as indeed it is: another great one brilliantly commented on Turandot’s suitor-murdering antics as ‘Now that’s how to play hard to get’.

Don’t get me wrong, Turandot is a great opera but its stock characters are rather one-dimensional; so this is perhaps the problem Puccini had in finishing it. Not even Plácido Domingo or Gwyneth Jones made anything of them in 1984, so I understand, and nor did Ernesto Veronelli and Ghena Dimitrova whom I saw that year. How I still miss the eccentric, unforgettable, Franco Bonisolli’s full frontal assault on his Turandots (including Miss Jones) in Act III during subsequent performances but that and the interpolated top Cs he put in all over the place was typical of him.

I wish during the relay Pappano had been given the chance to educate the thousands watching about this unfinished opera and how it now rushes to an unbelievable romantic conclusion in a pastiche of the awakening of Brünnhilde in Wagner’s Siegfried. From the pathos of the aftermath of Liù’s sacrifice for her beloved Calaf it is crash, bang, wallop downhill all the way to the grand explosion of the triumph of love chorale at the end. There was much sniggering at this point from the invited audience in The May Fair Hotel that was probably repeated in cinemas throughout the world. A few words from Pappano might have been helpful here – and isn’t it time their usual Alfano ending is jettisoned and we are given the Berio one that I have only heard once but am not alone in believing makes much more sense musically and dramatically.

(To digress even further I must add that I have a little reflected historical connection with this opera as I knew Dame Eva Turner, one of the first Turandots – or Turandohs as she pronounced it – and Dame Gwyneth Jones, and often they talked about the demands of this fiendishly difficult role. Dame Eva was at the première of this opera in 1926 and first sang the role barely a few months later. She reminisced once how the Maestro at La Scala said to her when she sang Turandot there ‘Signorina I will give you the note after the “Straniero ascolta” ’ [this is when Turandot has to find the pitch for ‘nella cupa notte’ in the first riddle] ‘Give me the note?!’ she replied ‘If anyone has to give me the note, I’d be better off as a laundry woman. Indeed they used to have an instrument, a sort of pipe, which could give the requisite note and I am glad I never needed it’.)

It is not really possible to review a broadcast in the same way as I would do in the opera house but I will give my general impressions of this Turandot that I thoroughly enjoyed revisiting. The young Hungarian conductor Henrik Nánási is general music director of Berlin’s Komische Oper and appears to have a solid background in Italian repertoire: it all sounded like a broad, forthright account with every climax emphasised and this seemed to match much of the singing that was as good as you are likely to get these days. From what I could discern the chorus were on their usual top form under the chorus director Renato Balsadonna. My one criticism of the screening in The May Fair Hotel was that it was intensely loud at times, it didn’t matter much to me but I wonder if this really reflected the sound that was heard in the Royal Opera House.

As often is the case the Mandarin in Turandot sets the tone for the whole evening, Jette Parker Young Artist Michel de Souza’s solid baritone had everyone sit forward and listen. He was well supported amongst the minor roles by Alasdair Elliot’s less venerable-than-usual sounding Emperor Altoum. Dionysios Sourbis, David Butt Philip (another Jette Parker Young Artist) and Doug Jones were very energetic as Ping, Pang and Pong who are the operatic equivalent of The Three Stooges. Timur is given little to do but Raymond Aceto was dignified and grave. The role of Liù is another of those ‘gifts’ for any moderately accomplished soprano and is something that cannot fail given her two heart-wrenching arias, The delicately fragile looking Japanese soprano Eri Nakamura – returning to Covent Garden where she was a former JPYA – brought this small role to life and sang with deep emotion.

Calaf is one of the definitive roles of the verismo Italian repertory and was portrayed here by Marco Berti who was cast with little thought to how his rather rotund physique would look on the wide cinema screen! He had little interest in acting his role and the closest he came to it was when he clenched his fists after getting the answers to his second and third riddles right and jabbing one finger in the air when asking Turandot his only question, what is his name? Otherwise he ambled across the stage with a blank – Pavarotti-like – expression on his face. If only his voice had been like Pavarotti’s – I am sure it would sound great in Verona or some other big arena but, however wonderfully secure its projection was, there did not seem enough light and shade for me until towards the end.

For American soprano Lise Lindstrom these are her first performances at Covent Garden – but this was her 100th appearance in this title role. Imposingly tall and slim she perfectly recreated my memories of Gwyneth Jones in this role. There was never an ugly sound; nothing she has to sing in this, supposedly, technically fiendish part holds any terrors for her – she has a vibrant, laser-like, totally wobble-free, loud voice. The camera seems to like her and she was more confident, relaxed and feminine than many of her more ‘statuesque’ predecessors have been. I would have like to have been shown a longer interview with her as she endeared herself to me at the end of the Behind The Masks video (about the Ping-Pang-Pong trio) when she was filmed backstage saying to them about Act II ‘You knock ‘em dead and I’ll come on and do my little thing!’ What was her ’little thing’? ‘In questa reggia’, of course!

Live cinema cannot ever replace the excitement and immediacy of actually being in the theatre, but it is a great – and affordable – alternative for those unable to do so.

Jim Pritchard

To view the full list of productions for the 2013/14 Season and find a cinema near you visit http://www.roh.org.uk/cinemas .

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