A supremely expressive Turandot

Friday saw another outing for the venerable old Turandot. The production clocks up 30 years this year and, however impressively it conjures up the theatrical atmosphere for the first-time viewers, I am reaching my limit with repeat viewings. In the age old debate that pits solid money-spinners against more exploratory or challenging fare, even this reliable old warhorse is starting to wear thin. I’ve been cataloguing my ROH programme collection [well, it’s been very rainy out, hasn’t it?]. Having only got through the first decade so far, I’ve seen it six times. I could probably restage it if a future revival director drops out – as, I imagine, could most regulars of long standing.

Anyway, I get tempted back each time by the casts and this one promised two women of formidable talent. They certainly didn’t disappoint. Ailyn Pérez, in the role of Liù, was a wonderful combination of innocent vulnerability and steely resolve in the moment of her suicide. She applied her rich voice to some lovely, thoughtful phrasing. Lovely, moving stuff.

As Turandot, Iréne Theorin was nothing short of revelatory. There seems to me to be a crucial, defining moment for any Turandot: negotiating the dramatically rather weak ‘conversion’ from ice princess to melting lover in a way that seems believable. I can honestly say that no-one has managed it as successfully, as captivatingly, as Theorin. I spent most of act 3 transfixed by her fabulously detailed facial expressions through my binoculars. She never stood impassively – as some Turandots are wont to do in an unfortunate confusion of ‘icy’ and ‘inert’ – but from the first riddle scene onwards she was constantly alive to orchestral events or the words of her fellow actors. This laid the ground for the duet of act 3 that seals the deal with Calaf: her portrayal of Turandot wrestling with her conflict was tremendously touching. Little flashes of joy, then suppressed, then allow to flicker across her face again, spoke eloquently of defences being breached. Vocally, she was sure and strong, pouring forth beautiful tone in even the most strident passages. She made Turandot look easy. Remarkable stuff.

The men around her were more conventional in their delivery. Alfred Kim was a solid, efficient Calaf, though the tone was a bit hard-edged, and Nessun dorma was rather uniformly loud, standing out a bit too much as a ‘set piece’. Nonetheless, it made its mark with the audience, who duly drowned out the closing bars with applause. It’s a short step from there to applauding the scenery. Kurt Rydl gave Timur’s utterances an appropriately age-tinged tone, whilst Alasdair Elliott’s fresher sound as Altoum was welcome. Grant Doyle, David Butt Philip and Luis Gomes despatched the Ping, Pang and Pong antics efficiently. Conductor Nicola Luisotti suggested that all details had been thought about, so that a full-blooded approach to the big moments didn’t detract from the more delicate scoring elsewhere.

Will I be tempted back for the next outing? Will there be a next outing? If there’s to be a new production, the Royal Opera could do worse than build it around Theorin’s extraordinary Turandot. We can hope.

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