Andrei Serban’s Royal Opera production of Turandot debuted when Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were at their apex, before Mikhail Gorbachev had come to power and years prior to this writer’s birth. It has been a fixture of Covent Garden for decades and is the house's oldest production still in action. Outgoing ROH Music Director and Puccini specialist Antonio Pappano had never before conducted this most adventurous of the composer’s works on stage before – last season he recorded it with the Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia – and so there was a hum of expectation as to what Pappano would make of Puccini’s swansong.

Turandot, Act 1
© ROH | Marc Brenner

This revival was entrusted to Jack Furness – no bad choice given his innate flair for choreography – and is tightly executed. I cannot recall seeing Emperor Altoum’s hand constantly trembling in previous revivals, an affecting detail which stirs sympathy for a ruler who, it seems, is as trapped as everyone else in his daughter's riddling hell. The familiar sight of the giant masks affixed to the stage, crimson ribbon trailing down to represent the last set of executed suitors, still packs a visual punch, while the dispatching of the boy Prince of Persia is laden with pathos, a reminder that this production has a substance to it beyond the shimmering delight of its choreography and eye-catching set. 

Yonghoon Lee (Calaf), Alexander Kravets (Emperor Altoum) and Anna Pirozzi (Turandot)
© ROH | Marc Brenner

The psychology of Turandot has been a source of endless fascination – most recently, Barrie Kosky’s Amsterdam production in removing the character from the stage altogether, leaving her as more of a ‘conceptual’ figure. To do so here would have deprived us of Anna Pirozzi’s vivid acting; Pirozzi gave us a very human princess, haughty and imperious, but with surges of vulnerability and insecurity. In her serpentine taunting of Calaf at the third riddle, one could see her almost tasting victory in the air. 

Anna Pirozzi (Turandot)
© ROH | Marc Brenner

By masking her for much of her time on stage, Serban places a barrier between Turandot and the audience which Pirozzi overcame with the quality of her body language, every gesture considered and yet natural. Vocally, Pirozzi was on terrific form; her voice has an almost crepuscular colour to it and her sense of line is clearly innate. She soared over the orchestra, absolutely secure – and attractive – at the top of her range, while rich and open at the bottom.

Yonghoon Lee (Calaf) and ensemble
© ROH | Marc Brenner

Yonghoon Lee acted the part as Calaf, duly adopting heroic stances and an active stage presence, but his “Nessun dorma” was underwhelming and there was a slight occlusion in the higher register that seemed to prevent his voice from blooming. Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha was a touching Liù, her “Signore, ascolta!” sweetly sung, but with a strength to it that brought to life the character’s resilience. Her “Tu che di gel sei cinta” similarly balanced a tragic melancholy with a defiant force. Rangwanasha’s voice is far from small and there was a delicacy and care to her singing which made her performance entirely convincing. 

Hansung Yoo (Ping), Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha (Liù), Michael Gibson (Pong) and Aled Hall (Pang)
© ROH | Marc Brenner

Vitalij Kowaljow’s richly sung Timur immediately impressed in Act 1, his tawny bass secure, but he was strongest in conveying his indelible grief at Liù’s suicide in Act 3. Alexander Kravets sang Altoum poignantly, his tenor the pallor of milky cataract, while baritone Hansung Yoo’s lyrically sung Ping was particularly impressive. William Spaulding’s chorus was in typically good voice, making the most of Puccini’s most dramatic writing for chorus.

Turandot Act 1
© ROH | Marc Brenner

Anchoring the whole performance was Pappano’s inspired reading of the score, one of the finest we have heard. From the snarl of the opening bars to the sweetness of the strings in the boy’s choir, not a single detail was missed in this lush, at times almost symphonic account of Puccini’s most modern piece. The pacing was on point, almost luxurious in “Non piangere, Liù” and the balance between pit and stage adroitly judged. A triumphant debut for Pappano.

* This review was amended after confirmation from the Royal Opera House that this is not the production's final outing