It’s a brave director who presents an opera whose most famous aria is “Nessun dorma” (No one sleeps) as a dream. Huan-Hsiung Li is one of Taiwan’s leading theatre directors, and with this Turandot for the Deutsche Oper am Rhein, in a co-production with the National Koahsiung arts centre in his home country, he makes his European debut. His concept is of the drama playing out in the nightmares of a modern Chinese woman (played by Taiwanese-born but Ruhr-based dancer and choreographer Yi-An Chen), who we first see surrounded by imagery of Hong Kong’s ‘Umbrella Revolution’ of 2014. The present day, with its riot police, evaporates and we are in a stylised representation of Yuan-Dynasty Peking, with the city indicated by an effective silhouette as the basis of Jo-Shan Liang’s set. The modern woman drifts in and out of the action, both witnessing it and interacting with it, while projected amorphic imagery suggests the stuff of dreams – confused and ungraspable.

Linda Watson (Turandot) © Hans Jörg Michel
Linda Watson (Turandot)
© Hans Jörg Michel

Huan-Hsiung Li’s aim, it would seem, is to suggest an analogy between Princess Turandot herself and the rise of China today – something to be both admired and feared. But while the dream idea is at times effective, the contemporary imagery at beginning and end – pictures of South-East Asian cityscapes projected on to a front gauze – feels forced and a little crude. I’m also not sure what the point is of representing Emperor Altoum as Puccini, complete with moustache, cane and bowler, and the director’s explanation of his interpretation in the programme does little to enlighten.

But there is still plenty to admire in the staging, from details such as those amorphous shapes resolving into the Chinese characters indicating the correct answers to Turandot’s riddles, to the effective use of the space and suspended screens to give an appropriately dreamlike ambiguity to events. And the combination of Jun-Jieh Wang’s video projections and Volker Weinhart’s lighting lends real atmosphere.

Bruce Rankin (Altoum) and Zoran Todorovich (Calaf) © Hans Jörg Michel
Bruce Rankin (Altoum) and Zoran Todorovich (Calaf)
© Hans Jörg Michel

Linda Watson, singing her first Turandot with this production, used her well-established Wagnerian credentials to give both heft and dramatic range to her portrayal of the ice princess, looking suitably commanding in her regalia and softening noticeably as her humanity is finally discovered in the final scene (the usual Alfano completion of Puccini’s score). Opposite her, tenor Zoran Todorovich took a little while to warm into the role and reveal Calaf’s personality, but by Act III and “Nessun dorma” he had found both the power and the security to carry him through and appear Turandot’s equal.

Brigitta Kele (Liù) © Hans Jörg Michel
Brigitta Kele (Liù)
© Hans Jörg Michel

The real vocal treat of this performance was the Liù of Romanian soprano Brigitte Kele, whose portrayal of the brave slave was touching without sounding prescious, and combined fullness of tone with sensitive projection of the text. Sami Luttinen made a noble, sonorous Timur and Bruce Rankin an eloquent and robust Emperor, a role that more usually brings aged tenors out of retirement. Bogdan Baciu (Ping), Florian Simson (Pang) and Cornel Frey (Pong) made an exceptionally well-blended trio of ministers and played their Act II triple-act to the full. The chorus made a good impression, after a slightly unfocused start, with a notable contribution from the children of the Kinderchor am Rhein. The conducting of this run is being shared by the Deutsche Oper’s general music director Axel Kober and his Kapellmeister Wen-Pin Chien, and it was the latter who led this particular performance, with flair and sensitivity in good balance and with the Duisburg Philharmonic rising to the score’s every challenge.