Review: The Royal Opera in Puccini’s Turandot

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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.

Live streaming via YouTube from the Royal Opera House, 14th July 2017, conducted by Dan Ettinger, cast includes Lise Lindstrom, Roberto Alagna, & Aleksandra Kurzak, picture by Tristram Kenton, click for link to page on Turandot at roh.org.uk, click here to view the live stream

Review: The Royal Opera in Shostakovich’s The Nose

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Absolutely absurd: sniffing out a story of noses, nonsense and knowingness 

Opera director Barrie Kosky claims that opera should change, challenge, and make you want a drink once you’ve left the auditorium, and he’s certainly succeeded with his directorial debut for the Royal Opera, Shostakovich’s The Nose; so much so, you might feel like you’ve had a drink (or two) before the end of the opening scene. The Nose, a surrealist satire with splashings of silliness, was live screened via The Royal Opera House’s YouTube channel the evening Trump became the US President-elect, and with its veiled exploration of status and popularity, it made strangely suitable and sobering viewing. Comedian Chris Addison, an informative, funny and, refreshingly, a seemingly off-the-cuff host, and the medium of live-streaming are promising signs that the Royal Opera House are still refuting the stereotype that opera is only for a certain type of person, and they may even be cutting off their own Nose to spite their face if they didn’t find a way to share shows like this one with a wider audience.

At the beginning of the broadcast, Addison quotes Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov – ‘the man with the longest nose sees further’ – and admits he has ‘no idea what that means either, but it sounds good, doesn’t it?’; in itself, quite an apt appraisal of the opera. Yet, the full quote is (a little) more illuminating; Nabokov is referring to Nikolai Gogol – the author of the original 1836 Russian short story, The Nose, or ‘Hoc’ – and his ‘long sensitive nose’ that ‘discovered new smells in literature’, and, ‘as a Russian saying goes, “the man with the longest nose sees further”; and Gogol saw with his nostrils.’ There is a knowingness to Gogol’s narrative, all the more so in the veiling of a sharply satirical viewpoint beneath an absolutely absurd appearance. The premise follows Major Kovalov as he pursues his missing nose and soon finds that this part of him is much more popular than his whole person.

David Pountney’s translation of the original Russian into English reflects the knowingness and nonsense of Gogol’s short story and Shostakovich’s 1928 score, full of neologisms – ‘de-nose-ification’ – knowingness – sneezing, sniffing, snoring and snuff – and innuendo, not always of the absurd nature, as Kovalov’s ‘loss of face’ and ‘featureless’ facade applies as much to the newspapers and their reputation as it does his noseless appearance. Sometimes there appears to be an openly political implication: a cycling policeman asks Kovalov ‘there’s a fork – to the right or to the left?’, and in our current polarised political climate, a spectrum with red at one end and blue at the other springs to mind.

Knowingness veiled by nonsense is as key a feature of The Nose as the nose itself is to Kovalov’s face.  A metatheatricality permeates the production: from the false noses on the faces of every character, to the dual-rolling of the doctor and the barber, to the front curtain playing a part in the plot. Klaus Grünberg’s set, with its centre plinth, circular proscenium and pitch-black curtain feels like the setting for a sinister side show, and the interludes in front of the curtain – Kovalov cowering with his face in the gap, the giant noses tap-dancing, the nose finally being found poking out of it – facilitate a rapport between actor and audience that is rare for the opera. Kovalov’s nose may be more popular than him with the populace of St Petersburg, but it’s also a hit with the Opera House patrons. Kosky goes one step further, breaking the fourth wall with Ivan the servant’s cheer for his over-the-top operatic ‘heeeeeeeeeeere’, a well-dressed, well-spoken woman with a mic interrupting the final scene to reflect on the ‘greatest mystery of this sorry little tale, why anyone would want to perform it as an opera?!’, and actors shouting directly into the audience as appalled pretend-patrons shout back, ‘this is the bloody Royal Opera House!’. The Nose revels in its ridiculousness.

Yet, mixed with the silliness are moments of stillness: the Cathedral mourners’ mockery looms over Kovalov as he lies still on the floor; the newspaper clerks only break into their hearty ‘ha! ha! ha!’ once they have stopped still to see – and believe – Kovalov’s noselessness for themselves; and, following the nonsensical tap-dancing noses, Kovalov sleeps in silence before the chaos continues. These moments demonstrate Kovalov’s palpable desperation to be untied with his nose and to not be doubted in his despair, and perhaps that satisfaction only exists in the stillness of his dreams or a vodka stupor.

Moments of calm don’t last long, though, as soon there’s more clowning, campness and calamity, from a clumsy undressing to a simulated sex scene to a phallus on the face – The Nose drives away all seriousness with silliness, and it’s a long-awaited, real-life indulgence to laugh along with something without shame. And we aren’t the only ones laughing: the chorus are lively, animated characters who not only sing, but laugh, shake, cry and tap in time to Shostakovich’s viscerally rambunctious score that’s balanced by the beyond-visceral belching, spitting, and bareness of Kovalov in his off-white underwear.

With all this vulgarity, it would seem that The Nose cares very little about its image, but the opposite is true: as Kovalov says of his disfigurement, ‘it’s not a little loss like a little toe that can be disguised in a shoe’. His lack of nose, while ludicrous and laughable, is, at heart, humiliating. ‘A noseless man is nothing at all’; and as a noseless man, Kovalov is ashamed to be seen as part of society, especially as his nose starts to supersede him, and is even denied assistance as the newspaper won’t print an advertisement out of fear for their public reputation. The staging itself plays with image, as it opens with what appears to be the sound of sniffing, but as the curtain rises, it turns out to be the barber sharpening his blade for Kovalov’s shave – why is hair a part of you it’s acceptable to lose?

The Royal Opera House’s choice to live-stream a production suggests they may be concerned about their own image, perhaps opera’s accessibility or place in popular entertainment. The Nose proves they needn’t be. The Royal Opera, like Gogol, can sniff out a good story: one that changes and challenges and is popular with all kinds of people. Now, time for that drink…

Live streaming via YouTube from the Royal Opera House, 9th November 2016, conducted by Ingo Metzmacher, cast includes Martin Winkler, John Tomlinson, Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke & Ailish Tynan, picture by Bill Cooper, click for link to page on The Nose at roh.org.uk, click here to view live stream until Spring 2017 (will update soon!)