There's something appropriate about the Royal Opera's 150th anniversary Puccini performance culminating in the theme of 'Nessun dorma', as it reappears in Franco Alfano's completion of Turandot, blasted out in a rousing tutti. However, despite the crowd-pleasing appeal of both Andrei Serban's classic 1984 production – revived here for the fifteenth time – and Puccini's world-beating melody, Nicola Luisotti led an account of the composer's final score which underlined its many moments of modernism.
The Italian conductor, soon to take the helm at the San Fancisco Opera, is clearly not one to wallow in the luxurious colours of Puccini's japonaiserie; from his stern, tense account of the opening he kept the music flowing, pushing each act towards an inevitable conclusion. 'Nessun dorma' itself, powerfully sung by José Cura, was shorn of superfluous sentimentality and Luisotti pushed through without affording the audience a chance to break the momentum with their applause.
'Non piangere, Liù!' started off at a languid pace but soon got up a head of steam, Luisotti particularly adept at piling on the pressure through gradual changes of pace. With the orchestra on powerful form, on the other hand, the tension in Act Two, as with each riddle the stakes are raised, was palpable. Even Alfano's much-maligned completion had a feeling of taut economy about it.
Luisotti's reading provided a contrast with the production, a staple of the Royal Opera's repertoire, which is often awash with dancers and never short on extras, albeit expertly marshalled in this revival by director Jeremy Sutcliffe. Sally Jacobs' designs are flamboyant and full of fantasy, reflecting how the West's fascination with the dangerous and irresistable exoticism of the East was fomented in the imagination of Gozzi, first, then Puccini and his librettists, gathering colour on the way. The action is representational rather than literal so that the grand, operatic gestures of some of the cast – Svetla Vassileva's Liù in particular – were part and parcel of the deliberate theatricality of it all.
Turandot herself was to be played by the Swedish soprano Iréne Theorin. Laid low with a cold, however, she was replaced at the last minute Elizabeth Connell. Connell, although she got off to a slightly shaky start at 'In questa reggia', gave an extremely impressive performance. Despite some uncomfortable shifts between the registers and an occasional breathiness to the sound in the middle, her voice is a rare instrument that can master the higher tessitura, delivered here with both piercing accuracy and musicality. Although the way she acted the role opened up the psychological can of worms – gleefully stirred up in Anna Papaeti's programme essay – regarding Turandot's character and its implications in terms of sexual politics, it was refreshing to see a princess both convincingly formidable and touchingly human; the tantrums as Calaf easily solved each riddle were almost endearing.
As Calaf, Cura was in fine fettle yet seemed in the first act to struggle to find the most powerful place for his voice to sit. The dark, baritone timbre at times weighed him down, affecting his intonation, and in the Act One finale he was overpowered by the orchestra more than once – perhaps more Luisotti's fault than the tenor's. He warmed up throughout the evening, though, and was outstanding in a heartfelt but never indulgent account of his big aria. He still has a tendency towards an almost casual manner of delivery that can result in a petulance to his characterisation, yet he remains one of only a handful of tenors with a voice that can deliver visceral thrills.
Vassileva's Liù is certainly a creature of subservient femininity but it's a role she sings and acts touchingly; not all her floated high notes were convincing but her 'Signore, ascolta!' was spun out beautifully. As Timur, Paata Burchuladze used his still impressive bass to imposing effect, although there's a Slavic, cavernous quality at times which sounds out of place in Puccini. Robert Tear is to take his final bow on the Royal Opera stage at the end of this run and he reprises the part of the Emperor Altoum with the requisite gravity and a voice that, despite obvious signs of age, is still impressive in its authority. The trio of ministers was led by young Italian Baritone Giorgio Caoduro's Ping; he and Ji-Min Park and Alasdair Elliott as Pang and Pong provided enjoyable comic relief. Former Young Artist Kostas Smoriginas was impressive once again as the Mandarin.
The Royal Opera Chorus provided some thrilling support to the climaxes, all of which were expertly managed by Luisotti, who showed a rare grasp of each act's architecture. In his hands the opera was much more than a few hit tunes sprinkled among musical ideas pilfered from the East. Here it came across as a finely integrated fusion which, although not entirely free from the patronising attitude of the West, shows Puccini's supreme craftsmanship as composer on both the local and general level.
Yet although never afraid to display the score's warmth, Luisotti's reading relied heavily on the vocal and visual elements of the production to elicit sympathy. Despite some excellent singing the power of the relationships that are central to the opera was not always communicated. Cura and Connell united with vocal fireworks but, for me, they ultimately failed to convince that the melting of Turandot's heart and Calaf's love for her were more than the contrived devices of the work's creators.
The combined age of the three Puccini revivals seen so far at the Royal Opera this season – John Copley's Bohème and Piero Faggioni's Fanciulla along with this Turandot – is just short of ninety years. It seems a shame that such an anniversary should see just another revival rather than a brand new production. All these revivals have lavish yet traditional sets which, although grand, only seem to confirm these operas as last works of the 'Great Tradition'.
Few will leave this latest revival feeling hard done by – there's plenty in terms of value for money in both production and the cast - yet surely a new production, and one that emphasises the continued power of Puccini's operas into the twenty-first century, would have been a more worthy tribute.
By Hugo Shirley
Turandot at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden runs until 23 January 2009