Opera and Classical Reviews

Turandot @ Royal Opera, London

15, 17, 20, 22, 26 January, 1, 5, 7 February 2005


Turandot

Turandot

For many people, Turandot is Puccini’s greatest score, and it’s certainly his most innovative. While continuing his hold on the 19th century Italian opera tradition in conventional arias such as Nessun dorma, Tu che di gel and Signore, ascolta, the composer pushes back the frontiers to emphasise the story’s oriental and savage aspects. Bitonality, pentatonic scales, and a full percussion section show the influence of the wider musical landscape on Puccini – one can frequently hear strains of Stravinsky, Berg and even Poulenc dotted throughout. This is not, as some writers would suggest, merely a mindless piece of musical theatre, but a highly imaginative attempt to push Italian opera into the twentieth century.

For many people, Turandot is Puccini’s greatest score, and it’s certainly his most innovative. While continuing his hold on the nineteenth-century Italian opera tradition in conventional arias such as Nessun dorma, Tu che di gel and Signore, ascolta, the composer pushes back the frontiers to emphasise the story’s oriental and savage aspects. Bitonality, pentatonic scales, and a full percussion section show the influence of the wider musical landscape on Puccini – one can frequently hear strains of Stravinsky, Berg and even Poulenc dotted throughout. This is not, as some writers would suggest, merely a mindless piece of musical theatre, but a highly imaginative attempt to push Italian opera into the twentieth century.

While Andrei Serban’s classic production for the Royal Opera is frequently stodgy, it nevertheless succeeds in capturing the atmosphere of the volatile society that the opera portrays, as the current revival shows. It works well as a grand-scale spectacle for a large house such as this, not least because of the stark red fabrics and props set against a black background. Most of the characters have heavy white make-up and imposing wigs: this is a production heavily influenced by the Greek theatre and traditional Japanese Noh plays. It also manages one or two chilling gestures that, even if you have seen them before, are still effective. In particular the final moments of the opera, in which Turandot and Calaf embrace, are dominated by a slow procession across the stage carrying the dead servant Liu, who died to show Turandot the meaning of love.

Mark Elder’s recent visits to Covent Garden have been the highlights of recent seasons – think only of last year’s Boccanegra or the previous season’s Lohengrin as proof of this conductor’s special gifts in the opera house. He managed to control a huge chorus of extras, off-stage bands and singers, not to mention some very wayward soloists, into a very fine, if not absolutely perfect reading of the score. The orchestra sounded magnificent, as they only do under Elder and Pappano nowadays.

In the title role, Andrea Gruber projected her voice well but seemed under strain most of the time. Her acting, too, was rather facile: demonic gestures do not make for a sympathetic characterisation. The wobble and wayward vibrato in the upper register are very worrying – no wonder she is only singing in half of the current run of performances.

Vladimir Galouzine was firm-toned but totally un-Italianate in both phrasing and pronunciation. He was much improved from his abysmal Otello when the Kirov visited a few years ago, and by no means painful to listen to, but it’s a shame he does not stick to the Russian repertoire in which he is renowned.

Exquisite singing and acting came in the form of Hei-Kyung Hong, whose Liù was the musical highlight of the evening. Gloriously sweet in the high tessitura of her two arias, Hong’s singing was an example to the whole cast of how to sing Puccini convincingly.

Timur and Altoum were played by Peter Rose and Francis Egerton respectively, both making imposing contributions, though the Ping, Pang and Pong of Quentin Hayes, Andrew Kennedy and James Edwards were noticeably out of synch with the orchestra in Act 1 and rather un-idiomatic in their important opening scene in Act 2.

Nevertheless, a moving and spirited performance by the company, despite some weaknesses amongst the principals.


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