Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Turandot at ENO

ENO have already got their new season off to a terrific start with a raucous but well-performed Grand Macabre. The first big new production of standard repertoire followed with Rupert Goold's Turandot, currently half way through its run. It's a gaudy, black-humoured updating of the opera, semi-abstracted by setting the whole thing in a Chinese restaurant. Goold has also grafted on an entire strata of story by casting an actor to wander the set as the composer, complete with an unfortunate end at the appropriate moment in the score (ENO are using Alfano's completion).

You probably getting a sniff of how I feel about this entirely superfluous and distracting addition already, so let me get that out of the way. I will say that the actor saddled with inhabiting a role which is not in the piece does a perfectly reasonable job.

The rest of the production is a mixed bag for me. On the one hand, Turandot is nothing if not a klaxon of fin de si├Ęcle razzmatazz, as well as a strange but surprisingly effective hybrid of Straussian harmonic coal-hopping and Puccini's more familiar lush Italian melody. Consequently it feels right that the cast should be a wildly diverse, brash assemblage of social tropes and pop-culture figures. They enjoy their evening out at the restaurant in one passage and cower at the unsettling dominatrix-waitresses the next. Come the end of the riddle scene they even swap clothing, props and gestures as the melange of style really gets mixed up (maybe it's a symbol of the rise of the meritocrat, the victor correctly answering the riddles rather than buying his way into the court? I do the production to much justice).

Too much is lost in the execution of this idea though. The subjugation of a people toiling under a static, introverted regime and the consequent police state is simply lost: the chorus, cast as clients at a restaurant automatically have a different social standing to that proscribed by the opera. The final act, set in the kitchen, works better. The chorus, now out of an associative environment, become simply what they sing about.

The principals fare better in the manner in which they are used, with the possible exception of Liu. In Goold's conception, she is overtly tragic rather than the lodestone of purity and goodness that would be better to offset the cruelty of Turandot (and Calaf) and the horror of the abuse which Turandot is intimated to have suffered in the past. Amanda Echalaz fulfils this role admirably but is not the still, gleaming counterweight to the red-eyed frenzy that goes beside her.

The (eventual) lovers are a fine couple of singers in this production. The Austrian soprano Kirsten Blanck has power and timbre to spare, even in the barn of the Coliseum. Gwyn Hughes Jones' Calaf can't compete by weight or gauge but his voice is a delight, clear, easy and with the dramatic attack from top to bottom that marks him out as the hero without any acting necessary (he does that as well). James Creswell is a generous, sonorous-toned Timur inspiring genuine pathos and Stuart Kale's Emporer is a real rather than a glace cherry atop the rich vocal cake.

In addition to my general misgivings about the production there were a number of bizarre additions. The ENOs (often productive) obsession with dancers and actors continues. Spectacle, as I have suggested, is important to this opera but that was largely all that was added from a cast of pig-headed extras (i.e. they wore pigs heads. They came from the kitchen, where there was butchery going on, see). We also had some moppet in a white party dress appear every so often presumably as a symbol or perhaps ghost of Turandot's forgone purity, crassly papering over the neglect of Liu in this production. Finally I didn't realise that the (rather English!) character who turns out to be Puccini was the composer until someone told me - I just assumed he was some sort of journalist-trope, and that the red book in which he noted these historical Chinese events was in some way linked to the rise of Chinese communism via Mao's own Little Red Book.

Despite these manifold distractions, there's enough of the original piece being performed with sufficient vigour and quality to make it a worthwhile evening. The chorus have never sounded better - currently at the peak of a very long ascent in quality - and Edward Gardner takes his chance to open up the throttle in the pit. And for all my criticism of Goold I thought he handled that peculiar second act Pi/a/ong sequence well (set on a fire escape outside the restaurant).

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