I can’t say that the Royal Opera’s latest revival of the thirty-year old Andrei Serban production of Turandot thrilled me as much as I expected it to. The central performance was as vivid and thrilling as I can imagine the role being performed, but somehow what surrounded it didn’t quite cohere.
Partly, I think I’ve developed some resistance to the production, with its tiered sets, crowded with the citizens of Peking, its grotesque orient-inspired masks of Turandot’s victims, and its exaggerated Chinese dancing, movement and costumes. It seems to be too unquestioning of the rather overblown chinoiserie of Puccini’s inter-war vision of the Far East. As the visuals combine with Puccini’s score the fragrance becomes a bit overpowering.
On Saturday last, it also seemed to be taking too much effort to sustain: for example, chorus and orchestra seemed to be slightly adrift at some critical points, and the dancing lacked a certain crispness. These issues seemed only to highlight just how big, busy and fussy the whole thing is. There was also a lack of the atmospheric mist that I seem to remember engulfing the stage during some of the set pieces (the arrival of the executioner’s grindstone during Act 1, for example) which added to the sense of it being a little too ‘literal’. It’s a shame: it was one of the first things I saw at Covent Garden, and it was mightily impressive to a relative newcomer. Maybe I’ve changed; or maybe the times have changed.
Aside from the problems of ensemble in places, debut conductor Henrik Nánási led an interesting reading of the work. At times – such as the sobbing chords just before Che è mai di me, at the point that the kiss ‘defeats’ Turandot – the score took on a jarring, ‘deconstructed’ aggression more akin to Puccini’s contemporary Richard Strauss. He was not at all afraid of pushing the expressive volume, which made a frequently impressive sound, but probably didn’t help sustain the work over the duration. Act 1 took until Signore, ascolta! to really begin to gather some togetherness and forward thrust.
In terms of performances, Lise Lindstrom elevated her Turandot above these concerns. Quite unlike any Turandot I’ve seen, she was able to wring some convincing pathos from the transformation of the character from cold avenger to newly awakened lover. It’s an almost impossible feat to pull off: somehow Puccini’s normally deft character handling stumbles in those closing scenes, and the ‘melting’ comes almost from nowhere and with too fast a revelation. But Lindstrom nailed it as best anyone could. It helped that she was able to shade and moderate her not inconsiderable voice: a bright instrument remarkable for its gleaming heft in high passages, which could so easily have turned unrelenting under less skilful control than hers.
Opposite her, I can’t say that Marco Berti gave much pleasure as Calaf. Vocally, he seemed fairly consistently loud, with a big but rather grating voice, and an ever-present habit of swooping up to notes. He had some moments of restrained singing in the final love duet, suggesting that there were indeed more attractive sounds available, but they same sadly few and far between. He was also dramatically uninvolving, especially seen alongside Lindstrom, and he never failed to turn to face front when he had something to sing.
Eri Nakamura’s Liù rose to the later scenes very sensitively indeed, especially affecting in Tu che di gel sei cinta, which made a virtue of her warm, marked vibrato. As Timur, Raymond Aceto was commanding in response to her death. Ping, Pang and Pong did their thing, vocally strong but not quite seeming as unified as others have in the past, and the Emperor Altoum (Alasdair Elliott in strong voice) breezed in and out on his descending golden cloud as ever he has.
So, something of a mixed bag. It was still enjoyable, but I didn’t get as swept up as I have been in the past. Is this another of the ROH’s old warhorse productions that needs to be gently – and hopefully fondly – pensioned off?