Powerful tale of state brutality

Turandot

Welsh National Opera

Birmingham Hippodrome

*****

IT is perhaps a sad reflection of society that this revival of a 1994 production is still as fresh and relevant as it was 17 years ago.

Not that that is a reflection on the WNO just that we seem to have a more repressive world than we did then.

Forget tales of old Peking with mandarins hanging out of two-up two-down pagodas on every street corner.

This Turandot is set in what appears to be a giant, corrugated iron silo firmly under the control of an oppressive dictatorship – whether fascism, communism or religious fanaticism hardly matters, it is just rule by arbitrary diktats and fear.

The population, the marvellous WNO chorus, are all clones, black trousers, white shirts and black ties, who are conditioned to move, speak and think as one.

Running the whole show is the cruel, cold Princess Turandot who keeps herself pure and unsullied by asking any suitor three riddles and if they fail to answer correctly they are beheaded which appears to have been an early form of regal birth control.

The effectiveness of old Turandot’s system can be seen by the 90 or so pictures of past winners of the I want to be a headless corpse royal game show.

Into this fun society enters the deposed King of Tartary, Timur, sung with a fine bass by Carlo Malinverno, and his slave girl Liù, sung beautifully by Rebecca Evans who has a soprano voice as clear as cut glass.

When the old chap stumbles out of the crowd appears his long lost son Calaf, reliably sung with power by tenor Gwyn Hughes Jones, which is all is a bit disconcerting as he looks a dead ringer for Bill Bailey.

Ping, Pang and Pong who have to deal with all the paperwork when it comes to possible weddings but much more likely beheadings in the world of Turandot

It gets even more surreal when Turandot makes her first real appearance in a severe business suit looking for all the world like Margaret Thatcher. Bill Bailey trying to chat up Maggie – the mind boggles.

Meanwhile the Prince of Persia (Michael Clifton-Thompson) is being dragged through the crowd by the executioner Pu-Tin-Pao (Martin Lloyd) on his way to join the family album of failed suitors with the crowd cheering him on – football had yet to reach Peking with executions seemingly the only entertainment for the masses.

Revival director Caroline Chaney manages to create a crowd scene full of mob rule and excitement without it appearing messy or confused – not easy with a stage crammed with a full chorus and most of the principals.

Calaf urges mercy and the crowd, an easily swayed mob, echo his plea but the Princess appears and orders the execution to go ahead but our hero has caught a glimpse of her and is smitten and despite being warned it is a rather severe form of assisted suicide by the three ministers in their brightly coloured suits.

There is Grand Chancellor Ping (David Stout), Grand Purveyor Pang (Philip Lloyd Holtam) and Chief Cook Pong (Huw Llywelyn), who provide the only amusing interlude of the opera as they prepare for Calaf’s funeral/wedding.

Timur and Liù also plead with the amorous Prince to set his sights elsewhere but old Calaf is love struck so does his Rank films bit and hits the giant gong three times to pledge his troth.

There is a chemistry between Gwyn Hughes Jones and the Ukrainian born soprano Anna Shafajinskaia who has a commanding dramatic presence on stage and, incidentally, shows immense pleasure and a bubbly personality at curtain call. She really did seem to have enjoyed herself.

Act II opens with Ping, Pang and Pong at their desks complaining about the repetition of their jobs, getting ready for funerals or weddings, death everywhere, the lives they have given up as they use their old fashioned typewriters as extra percussion instruments.

Behind them on the wall, replacing the pictures of the dead would be-lovers is a giant banner, typical of fascist rallies or Politburo celebrations, which is dragged down to reveal the crowds staring down like an old style show trial as Calaf appears to answer riddles for his life

The suitor and suited do manage to build some tension when Turandot sets her three riddles and Calaf manages to answer them and spoil her game.

Sportingly he then sets her one question to give her a chance to still have his life – find out his name before daybreak.

Sadly that puts old Liù in the firing line and the Princess orders her torture to drag the name of the unknown prince out of here.

Liù dies on the pointed axe of executioner Pu-Tin-Pao rather than reveal the name of Calaf

Liù says she loves the prince would rather die than reveal his name which she then does by impaling herself on Pu-Tin-Pao’s pike-cum-axe.

The opera was mostly written by 1924 when Puccini died of a heart attack while undergoing treatment for throat cancer. It was a time when the Italian fascist party under Mussolini was growing and whether this was a comment on that or not has been open to debate.

It was largely based on a play by Italian Carlo Gozzi written in 1762, which in turn was based on a Persian folk tale.

Puccini had completed the opera up to the final duet and perhaps the ending is the weakest part of the opera, the music and opera being completed by Franco Alfano for the premier in 1926 and seems a bit rushed as Calaf tells Turandot his name and she immediately calls a show trial, and touched by Liù’s suicide, tells everyone Calaf’s name is Love. Bit twee really.

Not that WNO can be blamed for that, it is just the way the operatic cookie crumbled. Puccini was an opera giant and he was struggling with a satisfactory ending when he died so finishing off his musical masterpiece was a daunting task for any of his disciples.

The problem as always is how to reconcile how Calaf, who has just seen his father’s slave driven to suicide because of her love for him and has just escaped joining the pictures on the wall by a hair’s breadth, can suddenly forgive and forget when the chance comes up to wed and bed a women who executes people as a hobby.

SUDDENLY TRANSFORMED

Seeing Turandot suddenly transformed by love into little Princess Perfect doesn’t really work and there is a feeling that the opera was ended as quickly as possible after Puccini’s score ran out. A quick song, finish and off.

To be fair the main score, played magnificently as usual by the WNO Orchestra under Lothar Koenigs, conducting Turandot for the first time, is powerful and dramatic and fits in well with the idea of an oppressive state. Koenigs manages to bring a freshness and urgency to the music which all contributes to making the whole production seem new and alive, an opera for today rather than 1994.

The opera also contains the best-known operatic tenor aria of all time – since Italia 90 at any rate – in Nessun Dorma as Calaf waits for the dawn when the prize of Turandot will be his. It is trundled out these days as a pop song – some versions are truly novel, try Aretha Franklin’s on Spotify if you have a minute.

It is a change to hear it sung in context when the words actually have some meaning and WNO regular Gwyn Hughes Jones certainly gives it his all, full of power and authority making it a highlight of the night.

With its stark, dramatic set by Paul Steinberg and clever lighting by Heather Carson this is a powerful and dramatic production with its message that love conquers all – even psychotic, cruel, heartless, ruthless princesses. The final performance is on Friday, 10-06-11.

Roger Clarke 

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