In spite of containing “Nessun dorma”, almost certainly the world’s most famous showstopping aria, Puccini’s unfinished Turandot has always been a problematic opera: fairy-tale wasn’t his natural genre and the plot has many fault lines. But it lends itself to grand spectacle more than any of his other works and last night, at the Liceu’s first production of this season, director Frank Aleu gave us a massive dose of the spectacular – yet with great thoughtfulness in the detail.

Turandot Act 2
© Antoni Bofill

Aleu comes to opera from the world of video art and the video projection work in this production is staggering both in the range of his imagination and the quality of the execution. Turandot’s China is a science-fiction inspired dystopia which draws on myriad cultural references from every sci-fi movie you’ve seen over the years, from the design aesthetic of Metropolis to the planet-sized diaphanous body form in 2001 to the lightsabres of Star Wars to the virtual reality headsets of countless movies today. The primary shape on the stage is a giant projected half-dome, which can be a geodesic dome à la Buckminster Fuller or a planet from which other planets are born or a more abstract rendering of feelings. When Ping, Pang and Pong dream of their homes in China’s provinces, they are surrounded by a nebulous swirl of the children they fear they will never have; when they try to buy off Calaf with sex, they conjure up a tangle of nubile but bloodless bodies. Inside the dome, a moving structure is most often formed into a pyramid, with the Emperor Altoum at its top and Turandot or the Mandarin below; a pair of robot arms plays a prominent part.

Turandot Act 1
© Antoni Bofill

All this would be just show were it not that Aleu integrates the constant movement of the scenery and video so seamlessly into the story and the peaks and troughs of Puccini’s music. But because he does so, the staging is a tour de force which genuinely advances the state of the art. When Wagner coined the term Gesamtkunstwerk, he didn’t have video projection in mind: his ghost, whether in heaven or in hell, will now be needing to rewrite The Artwork of the Future.

Calaf with Ping, Pang and Pong
© Antoni Bofill

One of the reasons that Turandot is a problem opera is that the two main roles are so unsympathetic, so it’s left to Liù to conquer the audience’s heart. Anita Hartig accomplished that in no uncertain terms: throwing her soul into the tragedy of the character and giving us a voice which perfectly combined strength and sweetness. Both the scene where she explains that Calaf once smiled on her and her subsequent death scene were the vocal highlights of the evening. Faced with such competition, how can the singer of the title role respond? The answer is to be completely different: Lise Lindstrom gave us the sneer of cold command, a true ice princess. In the riddle scene that closes Act 2, I take my hat off to any pair of singers who can make themselves heard clear and strong above the Liceu Orchestra in full flood. Josep Pons certainly wasn’t holding back, but Lindstrom and Gregory Kunde powered through them.

Chris Merritt (Emperor Altoum) and Michael Borth (Mandarin)
© Antoni Bofill

Singing “Nessun dorma” must be a blessing and a curse: the blessing is the aria’s easy-flowing gorgeousness, the curse is that everyone knows what Pavarotti sounded like and you’re not him. Kunde delivered a very good rendering – perhaps lacking the last word in Italianate roundedness, but excellent in phrasing, breath control and every other respect. Pons conducted a fine account of the score, from the swell of the big string passages to the grandeur of the crowd scenes to the woodwind-laced intimacy of the reflective moments. The Liceu chorus sang superbly, with a crispness that added great weight to the orchestral brilliance.

Aleu had one welcome staging twist at the end. There is no great embrace between Turandot and Calaf: rather, Turandot cradles the dead body of Liù in a Pietà position. She has indeed – too late – understood the nature of true love.

Note: I attended the second night, having missed the opening night for medical reasons. The images are of the first cast, which featured Irène Thèorin, Jorge de Leon, Ermonela Jaho and Alexander Vinogradov.