It's a difficult opera to love. When a suitor finally breaks through, he does so partly at the expense of the faithful servant Liù who adores him. And the mortally ill Puccini had his own struggles with Turandot: in the mood for difficult women, he was also toying with the idea of an opera based on The Taming of the Shrew. He did not finish Turandot, which was completed by Franco Alfano.
At its first performance at La Scala, Milan, in 1926, the great conductor Toscanini stopped where Puccini's Act III writing ended. He put down his baton and told the audience: 'At this point, the Maestro died.’
Tyrannical Turandot repels suitors with riddles. Photo: Marc Brenner
But the oriental setting, as well as reflecting a craze for the east that ran through all the arts at the time, suited the composer who had already dabbled in, to western ears, curious tonalities. And Andrei Serban's tried-and-tested production now in its 40th year, on and off, at the Royal Opera House is deliberately and unashamedly exaggerated in its orientalism, in movement, costume and Sally Jacobs's spectacular set design.
In this, the grandest of Puccini's operas, the superb chorus of the Royal Opera House is ranked in tiers, like the Covent Garden audience, both participants and observers in a stylised drama that unfolds between their and our eyes. With great set pieces – the god-like descent of a feeble lolling emperor, the rising of the moon – each episode is visually extraordinary, each character a small playing piece in a much larger game.
Working closely with Serban, choreographer Kate Platt drew on traditional Chinese dance, Tai Chi and Italian commedia dell'arte antics as she fleshed out the already substantial score. Of the principals, only the three officials Ping, Pong and Pang are as animated, turning somersaults in their eagerness to please. Their carrying out of the cruellest orders while dreaming wistfully of their rural homes contrasts workplace duty and private desires. Today's civil service knows all about that.
Pang (Michael Gibson) dreams of home. Photo: Marc Brenner
As the imperious princess, Italian superstar Anna Pirozzi brought the house down on opening night, flowers raining on to the stage at the curtain calls from fans in the gods. Was that steely look just before she took breath for her first big number directed at the clot in the standing places, stage right, who clapped ostentatiously at her first entrance? Steel there is, in Turandot's vicious challenge – we see the doll-like little Prince of Persia, who has failed the test, carted off to his early death. And this great soprano cuts through the wall of sound as sharply as the executioner's blade.
When Calaf, her mysterious new suitor, wins her challenge, he sets a puzzle of his own. Can Turandot guess his name before dawn? Cue 'Nessun dorma', the most famous subjunctive in opera – 'let no one sleep' in the search for truth. South Korean-born tenor Yonghoon Lee may not have that big Italian sound in his 'Vincerò's, but he is a lean and rangy Calaf, and Turandot should consider herself up by the end.
Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha is faithful Liù. Photo: Marc Brenner
As faithful servant Liù, Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha, who has come up through the ROH Jette Parker scheme, made a huge impact on an ecstatic audience, her especially crystalline top notes taking flight like the doves on a willow pattern plate.
But the other big story of the night was Sir Antonio Pappano, conducting Turandot for the first time in London, with his customary flair for Italian music and with the orchestra of the Royal Opera House on top form. He has recorded the opera too, with his Rome orchestra and A-list singers: that recording is out now. But for the full Turandot experience, see this production. Absolutely no one will sleep...
Turandot is sung in Italian with English surtitles. The performance on Wed 22 March is relayed live to cinemas throughout London and nationwide, and repeated on Sun 26 March: click here for details. Extra tickets for sold-out performances are available through the Friday Rush scheme: click here for details
|What||Turandot, Royal Opera House review|
|Where||Royal Opera House, Bow Street, Covent Garden, London, WC2E 9DD | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Covent Garden (underground)|
10 Mar 23 – 13 Apr 23, 12 performances. Start times vary. Running time 3hr including two intervals
|Website||Click here for more information and booking|