The Zurich revival of Giancarlo del Monaco’s production of Turandot is both monumental and marvellous. A Chinese palace is ablaze with colours (Peter Sykora, staging and costumes); neither detail nor expense has been spared. The choirs, some 140 strong, flanked the stage on bleachers for their first vocal entrance, booming out “We want the executioners!” in such a way as made me hold on to my chair for dear life. The fate of one poor soul who failed Turandot’s test had been decided, and the henchman – with their elaborate gear and enormous torsos − were as ominous looking as the place interior was grand.

But anyone imagining this would be an “old school” opera would be wrong: the Tartar principals all appeared in Western – if somewhat tatty – modern dress. Calaf sported somebody’s old BOSS jacket; the slave girl Liù wore a standard black Burberry raincoat; Calaf’s old father, her master, a hand-me down tweed coat. And Turandot’s three enigmatic riddles – Google be good – were solved with the aid of a laptop. It was a wonderfully humorous interjection that my neighbours found a real intrusion, but I just loved the cheek.

The opera’s story begins with Chinese princess Turandot announcing that she will marry only the man wise enough to answer three complex riddles; he who fails to do so must be put to death. Refusing as she does to be “possessed” by a man, the princess seems to have real issues. Indeed, she wants her chastity to honour the suffering a revered ancestor who was manhandled. But she meets her match in Calaf − prince of the warring Tartar tribe − who, having professed his passionate ardour, solves Turandot’s three riddles forthwith. When she begs him to release her from her obligation to marry, he agrees to do so only if she can guess his name before daybreak, in which case, he will die. Calaf  himself finally reveals his name, Turandot decides to let him live, and the two rejoice in their union.

Puccini’s remarkable score was left unfinished at his death, the last act completed by Franco Alfano only after the opera’s première performance (under Toscanini) in 1926 in New York. Since the setting is Chinese, Puccini made use of pentatonic scales that sound distinctly oriental, and the marvellous Philharmonia Zürich orchestra, under the baton of Alexander Joel, relished those rich tonalities. The five different choral configurations, including the children’s choir from backstage, joined forces to make a brilliant musical backdrop.

The principals sang superbly without exception. Nina Stemme’s reputation as Turandot preceded her and she did not disappoint; the range and the reach of her operatic soprano are second to none. She is also to be highly commended for managing the challenges of a staging here that were as tough as the score itself. Heavily clad in oversized garments, she had, in Act III, to cross and balance over half the stage on the precarious bleachers − singing all the while. She also had to cavort with her Calaf on a rather narrow platform above a deep abyss. Her having to move across such structural challenges may have boosted the tension of their relationship, but I was seriously unsettled by fear for her safety.

Riccardo Massi was determined and dedicated as Calaf, and his famous “Nessun Dorma” – always a hard act to follow – was muscular and memorable. Alexandra Tarniceru shone brightly in her debut as the slave girl, Liù; she was lucid, loveable and refreshing, her acting skills, utterly convincing. Wenwei Zhang – for a sonorous and adaptable voice that has electrified the Zurich stage in other fine productions − was cast perfectly in the role as the old Timur, despite his shock of black hair. And the omnipresent three, Ping, Pang and Pong, who made for comic relief and served as a red thread in the narrative, were all much at ease on the stage − despite the one stumble − and well coordinated musically.

Calaf had won Lui’s heart because he once smiled at her at the Tartar court, and she shows a sweet and accommodating nature throughout. Yet it is in Turandot he sees “the divine beauty” even if hers is the hard-set visage of an imperial warhorse in full Chinese regalia: richly stitched and jewelled. No fault of her own, but the only smile that ever breaks Turandot’s face comes within the last three minutes of the opera, once the poor princess has succumbed to human emotion and “love” starts its reign. That the whole gala ended at a trendy table, the two new lovers gazing at one another amorously over sparkling glasses of champagne, proved that even in the most convoluted of situations, a little persistence − and a smile – can serve one handsomely.