In 1984, I went to Covent Garden to see Andrei Serban's production of Turandot and was bewitched. Last night, thirty years and a wealth of opera-going later, I returned to see the production's fifteenth revival. I came here almost wanting to find fault: after all, it's a pretty elderly production of a work that has its flaws. Instead, I was bewitched all over again.

Iréne Theorin (Turandot) © Tristram Kenton
Iréne Theorin (Turandot)
© Tristram Kenton

What did it for me was Nicola Luisotti's rendering of the score. I often visualise Puccini's music as coming over one in waves, and the orchestra produced continual ebb, flow and swell: I kept finding myself swept up and carried away by the music. There was plenty of individual virtuosity to admire: timpani beats timed for maximum impact, brass chords which bray and are then released gently into soft string textures, piccolo and xylophone notes lending eeriness.

In Luisotti's hands, what strikes one is how modern the score sounds. Started in 1920 and incomplete at Puccini's death in 1924, it's very much a 20th century work, with polyrhythms and discords unimaginable from a couple of decades before. The orchestral playing last night gave clarity to many individual components of this complexity.

Turandot's two main roles are horribly difficult to cast, particularly if you have a very good soprano for the third role, Liù, which we did in the shape of Ailyn Pérez: sweet toned and melodious yet exuding inner strength. The problem is that once Liù has won our hearts, Turandot has to be a bloodthirsty ice maiden with a huge voice, but still be sexually competitive with her – all that blood and sacrifice has to be worth it when the princess's love is finally gained. Irène Théorin's acting was well up to the task: in her big entrance aria (“In questa reggia”), you could smell the fear and vulnerability behind the icy cruelty. She was also very good vocally, apart from some loss of power in her lower register. There's a moment at the end of the riddle game when Luisotti really let the orchestra off the leash, and Théorin's voice soared clearly above the massive fortissimo.

Iréne Theorin (Turandot) and Alfred Kim (Calaf) © Tristram Kenton
Iréne Theorin (Turandot) and Alfred Kim (Calaf)
© Tristram Kenton

For Prince Calaf, a warm, lyrical tenor may give you a fantastic “Nessun dorma”, but the rest of the opera suffers: it's an alpha male role, and you really need an heroic voice that is going to dominate proceedings for all three acts. And that's exactly what we got with Alfred Kim. No saving of the voice for the big moment here: Kim has a huge voice, and he  threw it around with abandon. Perhaps this was to a fault: while his voice was marvellous in his top notes, the register just below often sounded forced with something of a rasp. Regardless, Kim certainly kept his ability to thrill.

Matthew Rose (Timur) and Ailyn Pérez (Liù) © Tristram Kenton
Matthew Rose (Timur) and Ailyn Pérez (Liù)
© Tristram Kenton

Matthew Rose sang an authoritative Timur: his voice when invoking the gods to revenge Liù's death was as powerful as any of the stage effects. In a strong cast of lesser roles, Alasdair Elliott impressed as an unusually lyrical Emperor.

Andrei Serban's production feels timeless rather than dated. Some of the effects lack the surprise value they had 30 years ago, such as the giant severed heads, the blood-red streamers in place of a curtain or the exaggerated orientalism of Sally Jacobs' designs. But it remains highly effective, not least the white masked dancers performing Kate Flatt's t'ai chi based choreography. Serban and Jacobs certainly knew how to execute a coup de théâtre, and Puccini provides them with plenty of opportunity: notable are the entrance of the executioner with his whirling sword and giant grindstone, and the descent of the golden-robed Emperor from on high.

The production does, however, betray some of the problems from its original genesis. It was very much a rushed job, starting late and needing to be ready in time for the Los Angeles Olympics, and there was no time to choreograph the bulk of the chorus. As a result, Serban and Jacobs conceived a play-within-a-play structure in which the chorus watch the main space with the action from a high gallery. Most of the time, the t'ai chi dancers do a wonderful job of filling that constricted space, but it can look sparse and I did find myself wanting the chorus to be more physically involved.

Turandot has its flaws: you can never really accept Calaf's love for such a monstrous creature and this is definitely a fairy tale in which goodness is punished and the bad guys win. But it also has moments of genius, such as the shifting of the trio of Ping, Pang and Pong from comic relief to cathartic elegy to being accessories to Turandot's violence.

But Puccini's music simply makes me ignore any of that. Played and sung as it was last night, all I could do was to suspend my critical faculties and let myself be transported.