Puccini: Turandot

The Royal Opera

Royal Opera House, London, 16th September 2013 3.5 stars

TurandotThe Royal Opera began its new season with Andrei Serban‘s seasoned production of Puccini’s Turandot. With epic sets designed by Sally Jacobs and lighting by F. Mitchell Dana, the traditional yet highly stylized production perfectly evokes a China long since dead whilst also perfectly complementing the grandeur of Puccini’s final, and unfinished, opera.

Puccini died of a heart attack before he finished Turandot, and naturally the opera has been, since its premiere in 1926, subjected to a host of myth making and hagiography. It is a problematic work, to be sure, and the ending by Franco Alfano never really satisfies; still, as the most tonally adventurous Italian opera of the nineteenth century, it deserves a cast and production equal to the task of vivifying its most unique characteristic: the body-politic of power in male-female relationships. On the whole, Serban’s direction and the inclusion of Katie Flatt’s choreography succeed in presenting the power struggle between slave and master, prince and princess, but there is occasionally a stilted quality in the representation of the main characters, here exacerbated by the lingering quality of Nánási’s conducting.

The use of prolonged silences between sections of the score was intriguingly Henrik Nánási ’s strongest contribution to the score, making for an exciting debut. Novel touches don’t rescue basic musical hygiene, however, and there was at least one glaringly obvious moment when the chorus was beat behind him. Still, one has to give the conductor credit for the audacity he brought to Puccini’s score.

Lise Lindstrom’s first vocal entrance as Turandot in Act II perfectly complemented the gravitas of her silent, malevolent entrance in Act I. She has, like Berti, a big voice with an edge and--since gifts are often paid for terribly--hers demands a price of presentation: more finesse in order to sing Puccini’s notoriously difficult lines. The required finesse was sometimes present but was notably missing from “In questa reggia,” where the legato was disjointed and as a priority placed below the sustainment of explosive sound. Her vocal coloring, however, was an absolute success: the sharpness of her voice communicated both fear and arrogance (the volume covered strength), especially during the question sequence (“Straniero, ascolta!”) that marks the start of the Act II finale.

Lindstrom was matched in terms of volume and commitment by Marco Berti, the evening’s Calaf, but like Lindstrom, Berti also has issues with legato attributable to the size of his voice. A maxim repeated often here is that it takes more than a big voice to sing (in this case) Puccini: Berti’s voice is big enough to provide the thrilling excitement required by the role, but his overall representation of the self-confident prince is undermined by his tendency to substitute vocal power for legato without much discrimination. Berti was able to communicate emotions beyond cockiness despite his tendency, more often than not, to shout, especially in his scenes with Eri Nakamura: his “Non piangere Liù” was a intimate blend of delicate singing and conflicted emotion; why he didn’t sing like this more often is mystery.

Though it is perhaps not as unsolvable a mystery as it first seems. One cannot fault either Lindstrom or Berti entirely for a tendency that has become an endemic problem in modern performance of nineteenth-century operas. Singers with large voices often rely on audiences being impressed simply by the sheer volume they produce rather than the ability they—probably—possess to shape the music in a compelling way. This is, of course, not their fault, but a burden that rests with the audiences who have been conditioned by listening to half-baked renditions of famous arias. “Nessun dorma,” for instance--perhaps in part because it has been destroyed and at the same time popularized by singers unable to sing it properly--requires far more than an ability to simply sing the notes: it requires a solid sense of phrasing, finesse with the words, and the commitment to sing boldly whilst not sacrificing the aria’s natural melodic shape. But modern audiences accept far less from singers who are far less talented than Berti and Lindstrom in the name of immediate gratification, and, just maybe, both singers are aware of that.

Thankfully, the singer who boldly combatted this was Nakamura, whose Liù was a breath of fresh air: her voice rings clear and dances through Puccini’s melodies like a gentle breeze whilst packing the emotional punch of a hurricane. Both her “Signore, ascolta” and “Tu che di gel sei cinta” were worlds in themselves and created some of the only moments during the evening the atmospheric sets began to come alive. Hers was a transporting performance.

As Ping, Pang, and Pong, Dionysios Sourbis, David Butt Philip, and Doug Jones respectively made a singular impression as much needed comic relief until their darker sides shone in Act III. Sourbis especially brings vocal tenacity to the fore, and has a keen sense of vocal phrasing.

On the whole then, for better or worse, it was an explosively loud start to The Royal Opera’s season.

By Michael Migliore

Photos: Royal Opera House