Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Turandot review: An exceptional revival of The Royal Opera’s oldest staging shows there’s plenty of life left in it yet

13 March 2023

Riddle me this, riddle me that – Turandot is back for the 15th time.


Turandot (Photo: Marc Brenner)

The operatic rumour factory was in overdrive ahead of the latest revival of Andrei Serban’s venerable staging of Puccini’s masterpiece. Allegedly this was to be its last hurrah, just one year shy of its 40th birthday. Was The Royal Opera finally saying goodbye to the oldest staging in its repertoire? Apparently not. The company was quick to respond, saying that we haven’t quite seen the last of Serban’s take on this operatic tale of bloodlust, love and sacrifice. 

This is good news, as on the basis of this first-rate revival there’s plenty of life left in it yet. Indeed, with Jack Furness’ expert hand on the directorial tiller, Sally Jacobs’ vibrant designs still casting their spell under F. Mitchell Dana’s brilliantly evocative lighting and Kate Flatt’s stylised choreography coming up as fresh as a daisy, it’s a staging that still beguiles. It’s also worth noting, that despite being 40 years old, it looked crisper and more contemporary than the company’s recent new production of Rusalka – what a funny old world!

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen this staging – suffice it to say none other than Gwyneth Jones took on the mantle of the icy princess when I first saw it in the ‘80s – her high notes were quite extraordinary. More than 15 revivals later, we have a brand new cast and, more importantly, the company’s music director, Antonio Pappano, in the pit, conducting his first-ever staged performances of the work. Coinciding with the release of his exemplary studio recording with his Roman forces and a top drawer cast, he sheds new light on what for me is Puccini’s most fascinating score.

Bitonality, pentatonic scales, and daring harmonies pervade the score, with Pappano relishing in the audacity of Puccini’s writing – those brazen dissonant chords as the crowd venerates its Emperor have never sounded more modem, here as shockingly atonal as that famous chord towards the end of Salome. His pacing was faultless, while the palette of myriad orchestral colours he drew from his attentive orchestra, which played out of its skin for him, was exceptional. They more than did justice to Puccini’s iridescent orchestration, revealing details I’ve never heard before. 

“Was The Royal Opera finally saying goodbye to the oldest staging in its repertoire?”


Anna Pirozzi (Photo: Marc Brenner)

In the title role Anna Pirozzi had the required steel in the voice, but was never strident – a fine balance that is tricky to get right. ‘In questa reggia’ rang out thrillingly, and she easily rode the orchestral and choral tumult, yet still managed to muster a more emollient tone in the final act as the icy princess melts. And what a joy to hear a native Italian in the title role – when was the last time that happened at this address?

Yonghoon Lee certainly had the stentorian tones required as Calaf, but for the first two acts tended to push his voice and oversing. This would have been fine at Verona, but for an opera house this size was unnecessary. He settled down in the final act to deliver a nuanced account of ‘Nessun dorma’, with plenty of light and shade – let’s hope once he has gauged the size of the house that he settles down at the start.

Not for the first time in this opera, Liù was awarded the most vociferous ovation of the evening – no surprise when the role was so impeccably and movingly sung as it was here by Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha. With delicately floated pianissimo high notes, and scrupulous attention to the text and musical line, she won over all hearts. The supporting cast was without a weak link, from Vitalij Kowaljow’s sonorous Timur, to Alexander Kravets’ frail, clearly sung Timur. And with a lively trio of masks, Hansung Yoo, Aled Hall and Michael Gibson and an authoritative Mandarin (Blaise Malaba), it would be hard to imagine these roles being better sung.

I can’t wait to return later in the month to catch a new cast with English soprano Catherine Foster making her long overdue house debut in the title role.

• Details of future performances can be found here.

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