An outstanding spectacle in dance, design and drama, but with one riddle left unsolved
A fairytale from a far-off land, Turandot features the titular ice-cold Princess of China, a Prince hoping to thaw her frozen heart, and a challenge – and a change – for both to face before first light. Puccini’s final opera, left unfinished at the time of his death, is most famous for the Prince’s aria ‘Nessun Dorma‘, sung after he offers the Princess a Rumplestiltskin-esque riddle of his own – to deduce his name if, like her other failed suitors, she wants him dead at dawn – in response to the Princess’s three riddles. Andrei Serban’s 1984 staging for the Royal Opera uses the opulence of Puccini’s score – with its strong percussive components, including Chinese gongs and a glockenspiel – and the passion, power, and paradox of the libretto’s language to stage a particularly spectacular production.
As a spectacle, the Royal Opera’s production of Turandot is outstanding. Sally Jacobs’ amphitheatre set, with its three tiers and intricate lace-like cut-outs, slowly fills with the exceptional-throughout Royal Opera Chorus at the same time as the in-theatre audience files into the auditorium, and the curtain remains up. When the house lights go down, designer F. Mitchell Dana’s simple but striking on-stage lighting haunts in stark white streams through the lace cut-outs, hangs in an immense, illuminated, orb-like moon, and hovers in hand-held lanterns. The occasional colour-wash of moody hues like blood red and eerie green at moments of high drama complement the colour palettes in Jacobs’ costume designs, with Prince Calaf (Roberto Alagna) in moral and masculine royal blue, loving slave Liù (Aleksandra Kurzak) in hopeful yellow, and Turandot (Lise Lindstrom) in white as icy as her silent stare and red as dangerous as her riddles. Choreographer Kate Flatt captures the poise, precision, and passion of traditional Chinese dance, and the dancers wear impressive, emotionless masks, which keeps the production erring on the side of appreciation rather than appropriation.
Through all the theatrics, a lot of the action is curiously unmasked: as Turandot removes her mask for the riddles, most of the set manoeuvring is done manually by actors onstage. Exposing the metatheatrics of a piece as theatrical as Turandot is a risk, but the presence of her ministers, Ping, Pong and Pang, turn it into an astute means to explore the mythic roots of the tale. At the opening of Act II, the three clowning counsellors – with Leon Košavić’s Ping especially excellent – retreat from the masquerade and take off their masks to tell their own tales. With a stripped-back set, beautifully decorated fabric backdrops brought on by hand, and a surprisingly heartfelt backstory for each delivered more to the audience than each other, Ping, Pong (David Junghoon Kim), and Pang (Samuel Sakker) reveal themselves as storytellers, separating the fairytale from the verismo and introducing another dynamic.
Yet, the verismo may overshadow the fairytale: the Éponine-esque Liù, in love with the Prince but left out in the cold, has the most affecting character arc, and Aleksandra Kurzak’s performance of the ‘Lord, hear!’ aria in Act I as she pleads with Calaf not to undertake Turandot’s task is truly touching. Lindstrom’s Turandot, even with Kate Flatt’s crossed armography to emphasise her cold and closed spirit, is an ice princess who melts all too easily. Whilst likely a victim of the incompleteness of the opera itself, the last duet with Alagna’s competent Calaf is unconvincing, driven by lust and influence rather than love, opposing Turandot’s desire not to be possessed and damaging her most valued possession: her pride.
The Royal Opera’s Turandot is a spectacle of epic proportions: the dance, design and drama of Puccini’s music, played with aplomb by the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House and echoed by the class of the Royal Opera Chorus, are exceptional, but the depth of the mythic relationship is missing, and Turandot‘s trickiest riddle – what to do with the last duet – remains unsolved.