A myriad of unavoidable artistic hurdles, Turandot is two layers of challenge to any interpreter. The first of these is accomplishing the luscious lyrical serenity that is Puccini’s music; the second, cleaving this melodic lull with shots of abrupt gongs and clangour from the Orient. For all its predictable décor, Zeffirelli’s staging is the element that most closely adheres to the opera’s prerequisites. The audience is treated to small wooden huts that litter the stage, multiple lanterns, white Hanfus and parasols patterned with various floral designs, and floors made up of marble plaques with etchings of snakes. The Chinese laymen, clad in blue, navy and purple robes, at one point sit in an order dictated by colour-coordination. It’s a direction lacking in concept or ideological stance, and it isn’t the most logical or elaborate feast for the eyes.
The orchestra under Paolo Carignani is plagued by tempo problems in the first act, lagging behind to such an extent that the strings and the brass pursue a course of ‘slow and steady’ and then compensate for lack of pace with an abrupt fortissimo. At various points the strings fail to coalesce when they play a motif, this being most conspicuous in the brief melody that leads into ‘Nessun dorma’. The brass instruments are so disparate in their tempo near the end that one could easily assume they’re all engaged in some relentless noisy brawl.
Christine Goerke’s Turandot is the most intriguing performance of the evening. Embarking on the extremely tough vocal challenge that begins with Act II’s ‘In questa reggia’, Goerke projects a heavy voice sustained by a throbbing vibrato. It’s an instrument designed to service any vicious character in the range of the dramatic soprano, but it lies most comfortably within the confines of the mezzo register. It’s a magnificent effort, yet the voice yields to detectable stridency in extremely high notes – most evidently as she rushes through ‘E quel grido traverso stripe e stirpe’ and later on with ‘del tramonto il vivido baglior’. The lower parts receive the best of her – especially with the aid of a fierce and menacing vibrato. This is most prominent during her recitatives with Calàf in the final act where the command to him of ‘Non mi toccar, straniero’ is belted out precisely and with an unmitigated force.
Marcelo Álvarez’ performance as Calàf is a far less ambitious feat. Álvarez tends to think that forcing the voice and applying a potentially dangerous forte on most vocal phrases is a means of expression. This lets the reassuring aria ‘Non piangere, Liù’ become a Ciceronian declamation. He cries out ‘dolce mia fanciulla’ – ‘my sweet girl’ – as though it were an attack. In ‘Nessun dorma’ his voice is strained at intervals, especially in ‘Guardi le stelle’, and he sneaks in a covert breath in the middle of ‘splendidà’. Álvarez’ large vocal capacity could be used with more diligence.
Hibla Gerzmava’s Liù is partly poignant and partly excessively sweet. Hers is a beautifully sustained instrument which she sometimes subjects to a few vulgar undertakings, especially when she slides up to her notes for dramatic effect or overtly accentuates them. This kind of exaggeration lends pretension to the humble plea of ‘Signore ascolta’, which verges on being a showpiece. Thankfully she omits this in her final aria, ‘Tu che di gel sei cinta’. Here Gerzmava offers a very precise and melancholy diminuendo on high notes and her ‘perché vinca ancora’ shortly before her suicide is movingly desperate. Ping, Pang and Pong, sung by Dwayne Croft, Tony Stevenson and Eduardo Valdes, join together in both physical playfulness and a neat bard-like oration during ‘Ho una casa nell’Honan’.
The revival, for all its visual and material splendour, suffers from having too many bolts loose. The orchestra’s performance is most in need of repair, but sporadic moments from the singers offer us reflections of what Turandot is meant to be. For newcomers to Turandot, it’s pleasingly acceptable; for those with precedents of Turandot experience, it’s a mostly tolerable, rather pretty mess.