When they launched the Expo on 1st May, La Scala needed an opera with international appeal. They opted for Nikolaus Lehnhoff's production of Turandot from Dutch National Opera, with its visionary finale from composer Luciano Berio, and enlisted a conductor who knows both the work and the production like the back of his hand. Riccardo Chailly is set to become Music Director in 2017, and kicks off his interim role as Principal Director with this production in impressive form. His was a "music lovers' edition" of the work that made it impossible to take our ears off the score.

Nina Stemme (Turandot) © Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala
Nina Stemme (Turandot)
© Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

It was the work's more brutal elements that came to the fore in this account. Thunderous chords and mechanical jabs made for a cataclysmic opening. A crowd called for the execution of the Prince of Persia as they circled a fire to a Stravinskian frenzy of rampaging timpani and braying brass. Chailly was on leonine form, launching his body at the score, his mane flying through the air. On numerous occasions, the pit retorted with a roar.

There is plenty more mileage in Chailly's relationship with this orchestra – one sensed the maestro trying to draw more than he was able to out of the strings in particular – but it provided a glimpse of the exciting, extrovert sound he is likely to nurture in the long term. There was a shimmering, opium-laced intensity when the crowds beckoned the moon in “Perché tarda la luna?” and Princess Turandot made her first glorious appearance to music that cranked up slowly and dissipated in throbs. Chailly is steeped in this opera house's tradition (he has never been too far out of the loop since his initial training here under Claudio Abbado in the 1970s), and his relentless mining was never to the detriment of the orchestra's particular character. When violins underpinned Liù's aria “Signore, ascolta!”, there was the familiar La Scala sheen on offer.

If Chailly's interpretation brought out the music's Modern and Romantic elements, Raimund Bauer's set design mirrors its jagged and lyrical qualities in support. A studded cell basks in red and stretches upwards in a great trapezium. Its walls are flanked by two balconies and indented with geometric openings – craning rhombuses and a circle centre-stage – behind which Turandot and her entourage emerge to glimmering tidal waves from the pit. She is a towering, ethereal effigy in flowing white dress, physically and figuratively removed from her knife-wielding admirers below, who rhythmically gather and disperse to give the stage a sense of life.

<i>Turandot</i> at La Scala © Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala
Turandot at La Scala
© Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

Wagnerian favourite Nina Stemme made a steely imprint on the role of Princess Turandot, who descends from the gods in Act II as a tortuous Queen of the Night in black dress and elaborate veil. Aleksandrs Antonenko as the The Unknown Prince took a while to get into his stride (it was sometimes difficult to hear him early on under Chailly's lush veil), but the tenor soon found a helden firmness to release vocal thunderbolts from his balcony in “Nessun dorma”.

A commedia dell'arte inspired Ping, Pang and Pong broke up the emotionally rich drama with deftly applied irreverence. Against these moments of respite, instances of pathos glowed: Maria Agresta's Liù stole the show with irresistible singing in “Tanto amore, segreto”, exploring the range of her voice with an impressively supple sense of line. Her subsequent death moved to the core.

Maria Agresta (Liù) © Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala
Maria Agresta (Liù)
© Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

Puccini died before he was able to complete Turandot, leaving in his wake some 30 sketches for the ending and a note that indicated a proposed dramatic shift into the realms of love with the words "and now Tristan". Alfano's much criticised completion of the finale usually concludes performances today, but Luciano Berio's version, premiered by Chailly himself in 2002, provides an intriguing alternative. Incorporating 23 of Puccini's sketches into his own material, the Berio proved a revelation.

Emerging from nowhere but instantly transformed, the finale transported us to new aural territories that warped and refracted like Messiaen and overflowed in the fluid golden mantle of Strauss. The music's genius lies in the way it combines unfamiliar orchestration with strands we recognise as Puccini's, looking both forwards and backwards in a model that reflects the spirit of the the composer's mingling of lyrical and Modern musical elements. The entire opera is now rebalanced, a singular, coherent journey from tyranny to love, and the emphasis shifts onto an ending doused in eroticism.

Turandot removed her crown to convey vulnerability, and Stemme and Antonenko acquired a sensuality to their singing that contrasted piquantly with the image of Liù's dead body on stage in a real sense of Liebestod. Turandot and the Calàf embraced when the stage basked in a more natural light. They walked into the distance as the music drew to a close.