United Kingdom Puccini, Turandot: Soloists, Royal Opera Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Dan Ettinger (conductor). Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 8.7.2017. (JPr)
Director – Andrei Serban
Designer – Sally Jacobs
Lighting designer – F. Mitchell Dana
Choreographer – Kate Flatt
Choreologist – Tatiana Novaes Coelho
Turandot – Lise Lindstrom
Calaf – Roberto Alagna
Liù – Aleksandra Kurzak
Timur – Brindley Sherratt
Ping – Leon Košavić
Pang – Samuel Sakker
Pong – David Junghoon Kim
Emperor Altoum – Robin Leggate
Mandarin -Yuriy Yurchuk
During Act III I was reminded of something I overheard several years ago when watching a previous Covent Garden Turandot, and someone said: ‘For most operas I like to leave before the last act and this is one of them’. It may have just been a coincidence that near me a person got up and left during Liù’s evocative funeral at precisely the moment Puccini ends and Franco Alfano’s completion begins. As most will know Turandot remained unfinished because of the composer’s premature death in 1924.
To digress even more, I can reminisce – as I usually do when reviewing this opera – about my historical connection to it as I knew Dame Eva Turner, one of the first Turandots (or Turandohs as she always pronounced it), as well as, 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 recalled 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’.
Andrei Serban’s T’ai-chi-inspired production (in designs by Sally Jacobs and with Kate Flatt’s chorography) is revived by Andrew Sinclair and has returned for its 16th(!) outing since 1984 in remarkably fine fettle. The performance I saw that year was its 137th at the Royal Opera House, and now it has reached 275! I was intrigued to be reminded about the genesis of this staging – which has subsequently toured the world – in Sarah Lenton’s typically informative essay ‘Fresh as Paint’: ‘The current production was commissioned in 1984 as part of the Cultural Olympics in Los Angeles … a production team – who were fired – were followed by another production team – also fired. Suddenly the job landed on Kate, Sally and the director Andrei Serban. Time was obviously running out – some people in the Company will tell you they had only two weeks to turn it round, Sally Jacobs says she had at least six … The prominence of the dancers (and actors) is due to the fact there was no time to stage the enormous chorus, Sally Jacobs decided to set them in drum-shaped balconies.’
Much of the mise en scène was less familiar in 1984 than it is now from umpteen Chinese New Year celebrations, travel documentaries and movies originating in China. Familiarity can breed contempt, but ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’, especially when the opera is as problematical as Turandot. Here apart from some processions and some ceremonial dancers very little does actually happen: Calaf, Turandot, Liù and Timur just walk on, around each other, or off, as appropriate. They always seem to me stock, one-dimensional, operatic characters and perhaps this was part of the problem Puccini had in finishing Turandot. Not even Plácido Domingo or Gwyneth Jones made anything of them in Los Angeles in July 1984, I understand, and nor did Ernesto Veronelli and Ghena Dimitrova, who I saw at Covent Garden a couple of months later. Occasionally singers ditch the original makeup and production. Here Roberto Alagna’s Calaf was not as white-faced as some of his predecessors; and he also brought back wonderful memories of the eccentric Franco Bonisolli – who did the exact same in 1988 – when he locked lips during a full-on assault of Turandot during the final scene. Its ended with them in a clinch on the floor of the stage and I don’t think that was in the original production, but it will look great when a performance is seen on the BP Big Screens on 14 July.
I thoroughly enjoyed the evening. With this opera I vacillate between wanting ‘blood and thunder’ or restraint from the orchestra; and although someone in the programme describes the opera as ‘conductor-proof’ …it isn’t! Dan Ettinger eschewed emphasising every climax and there were a surprising number of more chamber-like moments. I liked it when I heard the harp and some solo string lines that can often be missed, though on this occasion I wanted a bit more power and passion. Regardless this approach, once again, brought into sharp focus where Puccini’s invention ‘died’ and Alfano – with help from Arturo Toscanini – took over to complete the last dramatically implausible pages, as quickly as possible, musically. From the pathos of that funeral for Liù – after her sacrifice for her beloved Calaf – it is crash, bang, wallop downhill all the way to the grand explosion of the love-triumphant chorus (‘O sole! Vita! Eternità’) at the end. What made this an outstanding afternoon at the opera – it was a Saturday matinee – was the wonderful singing from all concerned in the second of two casts for these current eight performances. This included the enhanced chorus, who were on top form for their director, William Spaulding, and thankfully not as unremittingly loud as in the recent Otello.
Like the Herald in Lohengrin, the Mandarin in Turandot can set the tone for the whole evening and here Yuriy Yurchuk’s forthright baritone made me sit up and listen. He was sturdily supported amongst the minor roles by Robin Leggate as Emperor Altoum, who seemed significantly less venerable than usual. Leon Košavić, Samuel Sakker and David Junghoon made up an energetic Ping-Pang-Pong trio and they sang expertly, even if they were not all at the same ease with the cavorting they need to do. For this short run their roles are double cast and so too is Timur, and it was something of a luxury to have Brindley Sherratt bring extraordinary pathos to the old king.
The role of Liù – even for any moderately accomplished soprano – is something that cannot fail given her two heart-wrenching arias. This was Aleksandra Kurzak’s role debut and what a debut it was! Even at the fringes of the action Kurzak never switched off for a second and was totally engaged in the performance. But it was the beauty of her sound that caught the ear and was at its very best during her uninterrupted confession to Calaf ‘Perché un dì, nella reggia m’hai sorriso’ and the steady stream of sound – poignant and heartfelt – culminated in a delightfully suspended piano.
It is probably easier to say where Lise Lindstrom hasn’t sung Turandot than where she has, which is an outstandingly impressive list. During her debut at Covent Garden in 2013 she sang her 100th performance of the role (for review click here) and it must be significantly more now. My thoughts about her then are much the same now; she has a vibrant, laser-like dramatic soprano voice, totally wobble-free, loud but not too loud. The opening bars of her entrance aria ‘In questa reggia’ – with its demanding tessitura – showed the qualities that would hallmark her entire assumption of Turandot: a well-focused, cold sound of inexhaustible intensity.
Roberto Alagna’s Calaf was the revelation of the evening for me. I have seen some fine performances on screen recently from him, but that is not the same as hearing a truly great singer live. (Maybe next time we can hear him in Keith Warner’s new Otello and it will probably be even better?) Calaf demands a spinto tenor with the reserves to leap to sudden high Bs and Cs; a challenge which Alagna met with consummate ease. He brought considerable vocal refinement to ‘Non piangere Liù’ and impressed with his technical security, strong, full, bronze-toned tenor. To add the extra frisson, we had a singer with his real-life wife on stage with him. Had Ettinger not pressed on as usually is the case after Alagna’s viscerally exciting ‘Nessun dorma’, it would have been a showstopper. As it was, the Saturday afternoon audience still burst into a few seconds of well-deserved, spontaneous applause.
The Royal Opera’s Turandot (with this cast) will be relayed live to BP Big Screens around the UK on 14 July. The opera will be broadcast free to 14 screens around the country, from Newcastle to Brighton, with pre-screening beginning at 7pm. The performance will start at 7.30pm. You can also watch the stream online on YouTube live and on demand for a further 30 days. For more information about this go to http://www.roh.org.uk/.