Review: Turandot, Royal Opera House

The last of Puccini’s operas, this revival of Turandot by the Royal Opera House comes with a libretto by Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni. It tells the story of Turandot, a Chinese princess whose heart has hardened to men. She requires that any suitor must take on three riddles, and answer all correctly in order to marry her. If they fail, they are executed.

The most striking thing about the entire production is the set (Sally Jacobs), which has been produced to a grand scale. Two wooden balconies extend around the stage, with a pagoda-like structure. When backlit through windows, this is especially effective and really takes on the personality of a town. This is complemented by some astounding big set pieces, such as a huge golden cloud-throne and a giant hearse in the shape of a dragon. This combined with colourful costumes, large, sometimes ornate masks, body paint and red drapes ensure that there is always something to engage you physically, and on the odd occasion your attention wanders, this brings you back.

If it is the set which sets the tone, it is inevitably the music which fills out the atmosphere, conducted by Dan Ettinger. Occasionally the music is a little repetitive, especially in the more static second act, but it ebbs and flows beautifully, and the orchestra certainly seem to have captured the essence of it, especially at moments when it swells to a climax. Occasionally the timing between singers and musicians seemed slightly off, but not in any way detrimental to the production.

The scale of spectacle does not stop at the set, with at times over one hundred performers onstage, often involving some wonderful dance reminiscent of martial arts, and a lot of stylised movements, especially from the three ministers of the court Ping, Pang and Pong (Michel de Souza, Aled Hall and Pavel Petrov). The performances are though dominated by the main singers. Christine Goerke as the eponymous Turandot produces great emotion in her voice, and her increasingly wild desperation as Calaf, the protagonist gets closer to getting all her riddles correct produce a strong emotional reaction. It is inevitably her singing though, which impresses. A very strong connection with the orchestra is formed and her emotional arias are packed with rich noise. Opposite her Aleksandrs Antonenko offers a strong vocal foil as Calaf, with great presence in his singing and an impressive range. Unfortunately, his performance is a touch unimaginative for large parts, particularly in that more static second act, he’s often found just standing around waiting for his turn to sing. While one should not go to the opera expecting to see acting virtuosity, there is not quite enough on offer to get invested in his character. The stand out performer is instead Hibla Gerzmava, as Liu, a slave girl at Calaf’s court before their kingdom was conquered, who still harbours love for him. Her singing prowess matched the others, but was added to a more textured delivery of emotional range, though all of them improved as the more emotionally charged third act progressed.  

I would recommend always looking up the story before going to the opera, as there are times when you want to concentrate on the performers as opposed to looking at the surtitles. There are occasions when it drags, but these are few and far between, and while the characterisation is not always dynamic, the spectacle remains present. The artistic vision of original director Andrei Serban is stylised in a very considered way and carries real spectacle and flair and thus is very engaging.I feel there is more that could be got out of this production, particularly in terms of audience relationship to characters, but it is certainly an engaging piece.

Turandot played at the Royal Opera House until July 16. 

Photo: Tristram Kenton