Puccini’s final opera has already been given a splendid outing this year by Opera North in a high quality concert staging, pared down by necessity in striking contrast to the sixteenth revival of Andrei Serban’s production at the Royal Opera House. That fabled warhorse, first seen in 1984, has achieved the somewhat nebulous designation of “a classic” and is very much in the traditional staging camp, which in many ways is no bad thing for an opera that can be notoriously difficult to update sensibly without falling into regie-parody – one notable exception being the intelligent and viscerally relevant Bieito production at NI Opera.

Michel de Souza (Ping), Pavel Petrov (Pong), Hibla Gerzmava (Liù) and Aled Hall (Pang) © Tristram Kenton | ROH
Michel de Souza (Ping), Pavel Petrov (Pong), Hibla Gerzmava (Liù) and Aled Hall (Pang)
© Tristram Kenton | ROH

Turandot, more than any of Puccini’s earlier operas, lends itself to lavish staging and Serban indulges us at every turn. Four huge masks representing Turandot’s most recent unfortunate suitors, a fifth added later, dominated the first act, and the spectacle of the Emperor descending on a grotesquely large gold throne in the second act was a thrilling sight. But it was the choreography of the dancers, superbly coordinated by Kate Flatt, that really caught the eye: a whole team of them in gold costumes and eerie white masks wheeled and span in ritualistic glory. The image of Liù’s corpse, dragged on a bier by the devastated Timur while the lovers and spectators celebrate was an effective reminder of the blatant selfishness that lurks in the opera – and who could fail to enjoy the crimson-tinged mania of the execution cart passing through in the first act. Parts of the production feel a little dated – the giant moon ploddingly lowered feels clunky and rather basic now, and whether it is an accurate outfit or not, the executioner’s costume feels like a failing comic book’s attempt at a frog superhero. The concept of the chorus surrounding the drama as audience remains strong, lending an air of urgency and claustrophobia to the action and tying into the power through the spectacle theory of court society, and neatly avoiding drawing attention away from the main choreography.

Robin Leggate (Emperor Altoum) and Christine Goerke (Princess Turandot) © Tristram Kenton | ROH
Robin Leggate (Emperor Altoum) and Christine Goerke (Princess Turandot)
© Tristram Kenton | ROH

The title character is a signature role of Christine Goerke and her familiarity with the complex-ridden Turandot is obvious. One saw it slightly more in the body language than in the voice: the repressed rigidity, the hands which Goerke wielded sinuously in a way that suggested nobility and desperate, frightened vulnerability and the confusion as her body reacted to Calaf in a way that confounded and tortured her mind. She was unable to avoid a backwards glance as she left at the end of Act II, and was furious with herself for it. It’s all too easy to sing the role with an icy anger for most of the performance, before injecting sexual ardency at the end, but Goerke gave a more considered approach: “In questa reggia” had hints of sorrow and for much of the evening, she gave a sense of inexorable burden to the character. The top of the voice was sound and avoided fatigue in what is an exceptionally demanding role for the higher register, but a little more clarity of diction would have been welcome.

Michel de Souza (Ping), Aled Hall (Pang) and Pavel Petrov (Pong) © Tristram Kenton | ROH
Michel de Souza (Ping), Aled Hall (Pang) and Pavel Petrov (Pong)
© Tristram Kenton | ROH

Aleksandrs Antonenko as Calaf demonstrated fine musical technique and an energetic stable top with some searing high notes, but he failed to show any real engagement with the drama of the opera, often wooden in his limited interaction with other characters, resorting to set gestures to demonstrate emotion and generally adopting a dated tendency to stand still and sing at the audience.

Of the three principals, it is only Liù for whom one feels genuine affection and she was sung admirably by Hibla Gerzmava: a purity of tone, an honesty of delivery and some fine pianissimi and diminuendi packed an emotional punch straight to the gut. Her arias “Signore, ascolta!” and “Tu che di gel sei cinta” were the highlight of the performance. In-Sung Sim brought clear diction and an expressive lower register to a pathos-laden Timur, his voice shaded with black despair after Liù's death. Michel da Souza, Aled Hall and Pavel Petrov gave splendid vocal and physical performances as Ping, Pang and Pong, capturing the dichotomy of weary comedy and savage cruelty, while Robin Leggate made a suitably celestial Emperor.

Turandot has some of Puccini’s most advanced choral writing and the ROH Chorus, continuing to flourish under William Spaulding, belted out the paeans and cries with no lack of melody. Conductor Dan Ettinger gave a solid reading of the score, drawing the strongest playing in the first act where he captured the brooding mood of a country in fear. 

Members of the Royal Opera Chorus © Tristram Kenton | ROH
Members of the Royal Opera Chorus
© Tristram Kenton | ROH
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