When we hear the sounds of xylophones, gongs and tam-tams amidst the Western harmonies, it begs one important question. In Turandot was Puccini (and Alfano in ‘imitation’) really attempting to capture the sounds and atmosphere of China, or simply using China as a pretence to present some genuinely radical music and show just how forward looking he could be?
One cannot help feeling that director Andrei Serban believes in the latter interpretation because his 1984 production for the Royal Opera, revived here by Andrew Sinclair, presents a staging that could also be interpreted in one of two ways. On the surface it looks perfectly traditional as bright costumes, masks, wooden structures and Chinese dancing (courtesy of Kate Flatt) dominate the stage. Look closer, however, and Serban, like Puccini, seems to regard China as the medium rather the essence of the study.
Turandot is a highly unsympathetic character who uses a thousand year old wrong to justify death to numerous people who were never responsible for the original evil. Although we might accept this as part of a set-up that enables her then to undergo a personal transformation, the point of the opera may equally be to reveal a story, and by extension world, in which there is far more cruelty than beauty.
It is, for example, noticeable how often the dancers, who on the surface are there to entertain, mime slitting their throats as a way of premeditating Calaf’s likely fate. Similarly, the fact that Ping, Pang and Pong (Michel de Souza, Aled Hall and Pavel Petrov) beat Liù with stylised, slow motion gestures means that an incredibly violent act is veiled by being presented in a theatrical manner. Masks carry great significance, as revealed by the Prince of Persia wearing one as he is led towards his death. Does it merely hide the tears and fear that lie behind it, or in its own right describe the passivity of one who is resigned to his fate?
Similarly, the huge wooden structure that makes up Sally Jacobs’ set may typify traditional Chinese architecture with its latticed windows through which light (courtesy of F. Mitchell Dana) floods. Its greater significance, however, lies in creating an arena for the action that reveals the entirely repressive nature of the set-up. The principals’ costumes may be brightly coloured, but the chorus who occupy the surrounding tiers as spectators are dressed in grey and brown. Theatrically this contrast leads our eye towards the action in the centre, but it says an enormous amount about the rights and status of the ordinary city dwellers.
Dan Ettinger conducts effectively, while Hibla Gerzmava and In Sung Sim put in exceptionally strong and moving performances as Liù and Timur respectively. Time and again, however, we find ourselves drawn back to Aleksandrs Antonenko as Calaf and Christine Goerke in the title role by virtue of the brilliance of their singing. Antonenko produces the most expansive sound as he displays equally high levels of accuracy and feeling. He does not always come across as the most natural actor, but this works with the character’s persona as he stands as a seemingly lone figure in the face of all those who urge him to turn back. His performance of ‘Nessun dorma’ is particularly impressive and the concentration he displays coupled with his make-up gives his face a mask-like determination.
Goerke, with her full and richly hued soprano is equally exceptional as the icy Turandot, and proves a strong actor as her gestures and expressions reveal this proud figure’s fear every time that Calaf comes one step closer to possessing her. It is also interesting how, even before she discovers Calaf’s name, she recognises the love that resides within Liù as she voluntarily steps down from her canopied platform and elevates the slave girl to that position.
Amidst the final rejoicings Timur leads the chariot carrying the body of Liù across the stage in a deeply moving gesture that says so much. In the final ‘tableau’ the united Turandot and Calaf are relatively still and everyone around them virtually frozen. As a result, the most dynamic and hence real thing occurring does not reveal joy but sorrow. It suggests that the ‘happy’ resolution is far more hollow and artificial than the horrors that have occurred in the pursuit of it. If Puccini deliberately structured the opera to ensure that this should be the case, Serban ensures that the point is brought out to the full.
Casts vary over the run. For further details visit the Royal Opera House website.