With its austere and beautiful music, Turandot contains all the elements of great opera, and has the advantage of being visually spectacular as well as familiar to many, more for "Nessun dorma," the showpiece tenor aria in the third act, thanks to Luciano Pavarotti, than for the cruel princess who executes all her suitors who do not solve three enigmas.

This staging (not new, as it revives a 2008 production for the Petruzzelli theatre in Bari) conveys the splendour of the Peking court through the static solemnity of a stony staircase where the main events develop as pompous pageants. This way it evokes a fabulous out-of-time China, and perfectly accompanies the majesty of Puccini’s last and unfinished opera.

It is known that Giacomo Puccini’s score abruptly finishes after the choir sings the death of Liù, and was completed by Franco Alfano with the final duet and scene where Turandot’s heart melts and love triumphs: this is the version which is usually performed. However, director Roberto De Simone decided to end where Puccini had gotten, without the added finale. Though uncommon (some in the audience looked perplexed), this seemed quite an appropriate choice, as it renders the story more coherent: also, some like to think that Puccini never finished the opera because he felt the happy ending was not the right dramatic solution to the cold-bloodedness of Turandot and the violent death for love of Liù.

The character who has most to sing is the tenor hero, Calaf, the prince who eventually wins the challenge posed by Turandot. At Teatro di San Carlo the role was taken by Dario di Vietri, a tenor in the Italian tradition, with a tone of lyrico-spinto, who nonetheless seemed to work rather hard to achieve the acuti. However, he sang musical phrases with warmth and, most importantly for the audience’s expectations, got the job done in the “Nessun dorma” aria, thus gaining his round of applause.

However, Puccini seems much more inspired by Liù than he is by the two main characters. Her two arias are among top sopranos' highlights. The role was beautifully sung by Eleonora Buratto, who became popular with the audience as she showed an exquisite voice, which combined with her beautiful facial and bodily expression. She won the largest ovation of the night, partly due to the quality of her voice, partly (I presume) to the compassionate nature of her role. Turandot was played by the American Jennifer Wilson, making her San Carlo début. She tried to look and sound implacable, but sometimes she faded in the lower end of her range.

Ping, Pang and Pong, the ministers of state were finely cast: their three voices blended adequately, at first comical and witty, then sinisterly becoming the excited torturers of Liù, in a topical scene where Puccini typically places beauty against brutality, giving her two lovely arias while she is in agony. The Emperor Altoum, Bruno Lazzaretti, had a liquid tenor that fit the role strikingly, and Calaf’s old father and exiled King Timur was well rendered by Riccardo Zanellato.

De Simone’s staging was supported by the monumental staircase designed by Nicola Rubertelli and by Odette Nicoletti’s absolutely magnificent costumes. The idea of dressing the chorus as a terracotta army was inspired, the grey providing a sharp contrast to the blues and greens of the sets.  The lighting effects by Giuseppe Perrella added to the excellence of  staging.

Jurai Valčuha, a relatively young symphonic conductor at his first experience in leading an opera at San Carlo, was able to handle this very complex score (containing references to oriental music and to Debussy and Strauss) quite well. However, he kept the orchestral sound too loud and his pace seemed slightly monotonous, thus risking underplaying some of the score's biggest and most dramatic moments.

The large chorus, which was led by Marco Faelli, sounded great, which is particularly significant considering how much music Puccini gave them to sing and what complex stage directions they had to follow.


[Editor's note: an earlier version of this review referred to Marcello Giordani as Calàf, as liste in the San Carlo programme. Our apologies to Mr. di Vietri]