Friday 20 September 2013

Turandot, Royal Opera, 19 September 2013

Royal Opera House

Mandarin – Michel de Souza
Liù – Eri Nakamura
Timur – Raymond Aceto
Calaf – Marco Berti
Ping – Dionysos Sourbis
Pang – David Butt Philip
Pong – Doug Jones
Turandot – Lise Lindstrom
Emperor Altoum – Alasdair Elliott
Soprano Solo I – Marianne Cotterill
Soprano Solo II – Anne Osborne

Andrei Serban (director)
Andrew Sinclair (revival director)
Sally Jacobs (designs)
F. Mitchell Dana (lighting)
Kate Flatt (choreography)
Tatiana Novaes Coelho (choreologist)

Royal Opera Chorus (chorus master: Renato Balsadonna)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Henrik Nánási (conductor)

The thawing of the Princess Turandot is somewhat more abrupt than mine, but I think it is fair to say that I am rather more favourably inclined towards Puccini than once I was. (Not that I was ever entirely hostile.) This was, however, the first time I had had, or rather had taken, the opportunity to see Turandot in the theatre. In such circumstances, it is more likely than not that there will be something to enjoy, and here there was, but it would be difficult to claim that pleasures – if that be the right word for this nastiest of operas – extended beyond the musical.

It was a pity that there had not been something theatrically to occupy one’s mind, however small; I could not help but think that, had this been one’s first encounter with Puccini, or indeed with opera at all, one might well have been so bemused by the ludicrous nature of what one saw, that that would have been the end of that. A friend, who I had not realised was also present at this performance, informed me that he had left after the first interval, longing for some Regietheater; one does not have to be Frank Castorf to understand why. I spent much of the first act vainly hoping for a sign of irony. Maybe it looked different thirty years ago, or was looked at differently. But even if Sally Jacobs’s designs – understatedly described by the Royal Opera as ‘colourful’ – are somehow left on one side, even if one somehow erases one’s mind of anything relating to Edward Said, let alone to subsequent orientalist theory, even if one overcomes the strange feeling that what one sees has more in common with a decidedly politically-incorrect Russian book of fairy-tales than with anything meaningfully ‘Chinese’, the rest of the direction, whether this be Serban’s or Andrew Sinclair’s doing, lies so far beyond the merely ‘dated’ that it seems older than the opera itself.  ‘Older’, that is, not in the sense of evoking something ancient, but because one wonders how much more restoration the sets and costumes can take before they simply collapse. Otto Schenk seems almost avant-garde by comparison. The dance routines threaten to make Puccini’s score sound like a model of multicultural sensitivity. As for the weird procession at the end...

My fear, however, would be not so much that this is a dinosaur that has managed to evade extinction that must come any day soon, but rather that it is being presented as a sop to a decidedly non-critical audience, who might find Wagner’s accusation against Meyerbeer of ‘effect without cause’ less challenging than bothersome. Visible – and audible – sitting back in seats for ‘Nessun dorma’  tended, sadly, to support that view. Once again Boulez’s ‘solution’ to the problem of opera houses sprang to mind.

The orchestra, however, was on good – good, rather than excellent, but nevertheless good – form.  Henrik Nánási’s conducting was strong in some respects: the extraordinary radicalism, at least for a composer of Italian opera, of Puccini’s harmony and orchestration shone through. Nánási was willing to linger, without losing track of where the musical drama was heading. There was often, though, a lack of sharpness, which would have lifted the performance and offered something more keenly responsive to the viciousness of the work. That is not, of course, to say that one wishes for something hard-driven or soulless, however much one might wonder whether that might be precisely what Turandot deserves, but there were times when this veered towards the listless. Choral singing was excellent throughout, yet another credit to the Royal Opera Chorus and Renato Balsadonna.

Much of the solo singing was to be admired too. Save for slight unsteadiness – quite pardonable, given the cruelty of this entry – upon her first phrase or two, Lise Lindstrom proved more or less beyond reproach as the ice princess. I use the cliché, since the final melting was a masterclass in how to present what I hesitate to call development of character, so shall settle for Puccini’s manipulative genius, breathtaking here even by his standards. The cold strength of much of the performance finally revealed a beating heart: too late, of course, for Liù, or indeed for any semblance of humanity within the work as a whole. Eri Nakamura gave the best performance I have heard from her as the slave girl, often exquisitely shaded; again, try as one might, it was more or less impossible not to be moved, even as one knew one was being shamelessly manipulated. (Strauss almost seems to have a conscience in such matters when compared with Puccini.) Marco Berti’s voice is of the type considered almost de rigeur for Calaf. There is, to be fair, considerable dynamic shading, yet I could not help but wish for something a little less rigid, whether in vocal or stage terms, though the latter may of course have been someone else’s fault. One would have to search far and wide for a more irritating and indeed offensive trio than the ghastly Ping, Pong, and Pang, but Dionysos Sourbis, David Butt Philip, and Doug Jones did what they could to bring their words to life. (Their stage business I cannot really bring myself to describe.) Alasdair Elliott certainly sounded like an elderly emperor, though was perhaps a little too much on the frail side. Still, the audience appeared to love the melodramatic – I fear that is far too weak a word – descent of his throne from the ceiling.

Alfano’s wretched ending was employed, though I suppose Berio and Serban might have made for odd bedfellows. If, however, there was little to be gleaned from the staging beyond avid connoisseurship of shameless kitsch, the performance arguably did its job in reminding one quite how wondrously repellent this opera is. One may, arguably should, disapprove, but it certainly holds the attention more than the last opera I had seen staged at Covent Garden: Britten’s deathly Gloriana. There are different ways to lie, as Michael Tanner’s perspicacious review of this Turandot would have it, beyond redemption; better, surely, for the problem to lie with morality than competence. To conclude, a plea that will doubtless fall upon deaf ears: next time might we not have a Turandot that proffers both  musical and ethical redemption? Busoni would be our man.