Traditional does not have to mean tired. This production of Puccini's Turandot is a happy medium between drastic re-imaginings of opera plots and literal stagings that follow every comma in the libretto. Although none of the individual performances touched greatness, conductor János Kovács kneaded them all together into fast-paced theatre with grand flourishes. The orchestra followed him with alertness and gusto and savoured his lingering on well-chosen phrases. A second conductor in a side box with the trumpets and trombones helped keep rhythms tight. The straight-backed fanfares sounding from that box dared you to gripe about the few offending notes.

Jee Hye Han (Turandot) © Attila Nagy
Jee Hye Han (Turandot)
© Attila Nagy

Balázs Kovalik's imperial China is pictorially lavish without being garish. Princess Turandot's court glistens darkly in reds, purples and gold, while the crowd is massed in shadowy grey. The chorus is, in fact, the motor behind the production’s visually fluidity. Informed by Japanese kabuki theatre, Mr Kovalik has them constantly moving in slick choreography, and while singing superbly to boot. Memorable visuals abound, such as the floating lunar lady during the Rising of the Moon, or Turandot's gold-encrusted appearance in Act I, courtesy of Márta Jánoskuti’s stunning costume design. Even more effective, however, are the simple touches and visual symbols that elucidate the plot. Thus Emperor Altoum, ably sung according to elder tenor convention by István Róka, is flanked by two figures shielding their eyes from the horrors unfolding beneath the throne. The three imperial functionaries, Ping, Pang and Pong, do not just discourage Calaf from risking his head by courting Turandot. During their bucolic trio, they remove their theatrical make-up, slipping out of their official personae, and show Calaf the answers to the three riddles. Vocally, the ministers were a perfect triad of timbres, the very capable baritone Lajos Geiger (Ping) contrasting with the tenors, one flutey, the other weightier, of László Beöthy-Kiss (Pang) and Tivadar Kiss (Pong). This production de-emphasises the comic nature of the ministers, and also plays down both Liù’s self-effacement and Timur's frailty.

Tivadar Kiss (Pong), Lajos Geiger (Ping) and László Beöthy-Kiss (Pang) © Attila Nagy
Tivadar Kiss (Pong), Lajos Geiger (Ping) and László Beöthy-Kiss (Pang)
© Attila Nagy

István Rácz's solidly sung Tartar king was old but proud, his voice dark with gravitas. After Liù kills herself, her body is not carried off, but remains onstage, a reminder of Turandot's blood-streaked journey to her emotional flowering. When he realises Liù is dead, Timur gives his son a long look of reproach and disgust and we see Turandot's cold casing beginning to crack. Zita Váradi made a heroic Liù, sure of her moral superiority over her royal rival. With more steel than silver in her soprano, Ms Váradi delivered both her arias with fine legato and sensibility. If he had given her the time of day, in any production Liù would have been too good for Calaf. This was especially true of this Liù and this Calaf.

Already knowing the answers, the Unknown Prince made a big show of cranking the cogwheels of his brain during the Riddle Scene, to the point of caricature. Was the director cocking a snook at Calaf or was it the tenor's choice? Whatever the reason, this was a particularly unsubtle portrayal of an inherently unsubtle character. Eleven o'clock in the morning is very early to stride out with tenorial guns blazing, but that is exactly what Atilla Kiss B. did. He flung out all of Calaf's top notes, including the sustained high B in "Nessun dorma", and they were big, lusty and mostly on target. The rest of the time he was, unfortunately, in vocal hot water, orchestral accommodation from the pit notwithstanding. He struggled with lower and middle voice support and was unable to sustain melodic flow. The wending to the top notes was so perilous that each one was a surprise when it materialised. In spite of this, of all the soloists Mr Kiss B. was the most Italianate in his phrasing. He knew exactly where to take Puccini's lines, but his voice was reluctant to follow him. 

Atilla Kiss B (Calaf) © Attila Nagy
Atilla Kiss B (Calaf)
© Attila Nagy

His brand of idiomatic proficiency would greatly enhance Jee Hye Han's Turandot, whose vocal merits are many. Ms Han’s voice is not huge, but she has sufficient volume and was only covered in the big ensembles. Crucially, her youthful soprano has sure-fire high Bs and Cs, but Ms Han's ice princess is not yet a finished product. The Italian double consonants pronounced as singles, and vice versa, are a problem. But pronunciation can be learned, whereas a high-fulcrum voice able to tackle Turandot is a rare gift. The voice did take on an attractive blush in the course of the afternoon. "In questa reggia" was one-colour, but by "Del primo pianto" it had a roseate glow, which also came with more expressive freedom and connection with the text. Altogether, Ms Han’s was an impressive undertaking of this tricky role. It was very gratifying hearing her clear its hurdles with such aplomb.