Royal Opera House 2022-23 Review: Turandot

Anna Pirozzi and Yonghoon Lee lead a rousing performance at The Royal Opera House

By Mike Hardy
Photo: Marc Brenner

Having an unequivocal passion for Puccini, this reviewer must confess to being somewhat conflicted over his final work. These concerns, though, have always been assuaged with the knowledge that many others have also been plagued with such uncertainty, not least with the original work itself, for, of course, the maestro died before the completion of “Turandot.” After his death, the composer Franco Alfano was commissioned to finish the opera

Toscanini, the opera’s first conductor, disliked Alfano’s work and insisted he cut about 100 bars, ending up with the version most theaters perform today, which may well lend less substance and gravitas to Princess Turandot’s character. Or, of course, it may just very well be that Maestro Puccini “laid down his pen” before he could finish creating a more cohesive tale.

Its rewrites and restructures continued right up until as recently as 2007, such was the debate about significant parts of the final act that Puccini never completed.

Indeed, deliberations still persist to this day over, even the correct pronunciation of the opera’s title itself, with many insisting it to be TuranDOT, as in microdot; or ending in doh, as in, well….Homer Simpson.

Andrei Serban’s production at the Royal Opera House is now almost four decades old. Yet, under Jack Furness’s revival, it still positively dazzles with fresh brilliance, vivid color, and impressive animation that provides for a most spectacular, overall visual feast.

“Turandot”: A Monstrous Tale

Unlike in the past, the curtains were already raised prior to the commencement of the opera, with deep red, cascading silk streamers or banners framing four giant masks suspended from the ceiling against a backdrop of pagoda-styled tiered balconies onto which members of the chorus filed, some five minutes before the start.

Spellbinding dancers, ‘phantoms,’ under Choreographer Kate Flatt,  set the visual tone throughout and take a pivotal role in the storytelling, operating with remarkable dexterity and fluidity. Their movements, very clearly influenced by traditional Chinese martial arts, including Tai chi, produced a mesmerizing backdrop for the unfolding tale.

“Turandot” is an unpalatably monstrous tale no matter which way you view it: Boy meets girl. The girl is psychopathic and cruelly decapitates all and any admirers who come her way after inevitably failing her ‘three riddles’ test. The boy becomes, seemingly, MORE enamored at this behavior and happily risks the same fate by undertaking the riddle challenge to win over the girl’s affection. The boy passes the test. The girl reneges on the deal. The boy offers the girl a chance to pull out of the deal by setting her a riddle of his own. The girl fails the test, but he lets her win the test anyway by providing the answer. The girl decides she loves him after all, and they live happily ever after.

Doh! As Homer Simpson would say.

There are those who would argue the opera represents the ultimate triumph of love over evil. Yet, it’s difficult to believe that such evil, in the form of Princess Turandot herself, could ever be influenced by something so intrinsically human as love. This femme fatale doesn’t even sample the fruits of love before destroying her conquests, a black widow who devours her mate without having indulged in the mating ritual itself.

It doesn’t help that her conqueror, Calaf, ‘the unknown Prince,’ appears to possess a character that fares little better. He’s clearly a narcissistic, arrogant man of straw whose relentless pursuit of Turandot in his determination to win her over knows no bounds. His dismissal of his one TRUE love, Liù, a formerly enslaved person and now carer and guide for his own father, Timur, seems palpably heartless. Later, he refuses to answer the riddle he puts to the Princess–his NAME–even to the point of watching Liù and his own father being tortured, on top of the fact that the entire people of Peking are facing Turandot’s wrath and their very extinction because of his obsession. None of this paints a personality one can really get behind and root for.

Of course, grand opera (and this is as grand as it gets) is not known for its credible plots and stories. Still, “Turandot” is so far removed from the verismo routes traversed by Puccini, and the ostensibly happy ending here isn’t really happy in any way at all.

Strong Leads

The custodian of the titular role was played by dramatic coloratura Anna Pirozzi who was momentarily startled when some over-enthusiastic member of the stalls bizarrely, loudly, and longly applauded her stage entrance. Fortunately, this interruption didn’t significantly throw her.  Pirozzi possesses an instrument of some magnitude, easily able to ascend the soaring orchestration while proficiently producing some evocative softness in the middle and lower registers. Her ‘In questa Reggia’ was accomplished. Yet, she fared better, vocally, in her interactions with Calaf, particularly leading up to and including the ascending passages: ‘Gli enigmi sono tre, la morte è una!’(The riddles are three, but death is one!).

The scene with her father, the Emperor, where she pleads to be spared the courtship to escape the oath, ‘Figlio del cielo!’ along with the final scenes in the opera where she capitulates to Calaf’s advances and submits to his kiss–pronouncing that she chooses LOVE, rather than the execution of her ardent pursuer–hinted at a tender vulnerability. While doing little to mitigate the atrocities committed in her name beforehand, it served to inject some much-needed humanity into her role, and she sings here with some expressive sweetness. Her ‘Del primo pianto…ah!’ in particular was beautifully enunciated.

Turandot’s conqueror and subjugator, Calaf, was performed by South Korean lyrico spinto tenor Yonghoon Lee who is a veteran in this role, having sung it many times since 2012. Rich, dark tones in the lower and middle registers produced a pleasing squillo at the top. Tenors of the past have made their name prolonging the final ‘Vincerò!’ from the opera’s famous aria, ‘Nessun Dorma’ (arguably the most famous aria in the world), Lee didn’t disappoint. He employs a pleasing glissando into the top note, displaying good breath control while giving sotto voce embellishments to ‘splenderà!’ elsewhere in the aria.

“Turandot” was scored for a large orchestra, and combined with his propensity for coloring his work with loud, strident flourishes, many a tenor struggle to be heard in Puccini’s works. Not so Lee, however, whose voluminous voice penetrated throughout, even during the most intensifying passages leading up to him striking the gong to summon Turandot, and during the duet above, ‘Gli enigmi sono tre, la morte è una!’. Conversely, his ‘Non piangere, Liù!’ was beautifully measured, with delicate phrasing and soft, nuanced, guttural utterances.

Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha Stands Out

This nicely introduces the absolute tour de force, Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha, in the role of Liù. Benign and gentle, the formerly enslaved girl is in love with Calaf and seemingly elects to care for the deposed king, Timur, only on the basis that he is Calaf’s father. Her aria, ‘Signore, ascolta!’ her plea to Calaf to cease his pursuit of Turandot was exquisite in its execution with a most delightful ‘Ah, pietà!’ finish brought the only applause and cheers for an aria during the whole evening’s performance. Her ‘Tu che di gel sei cinta’ was even better; heart-wrenchingly beautiful and mesmerizingly evocative, her utterance of the passage, ‘Ah! come offerta suprema del mio amore!’ that precedes the aria, sublime.

Pirozzi may have been rained upon with garlands of flowers, seemingly tossed from the heavens at the curtain call, but Rangwanasha received, arguably, the loudest and most tumultuous applause.

The whole tale unfolds under the comedic narration provided by three courtiers, or ministers, curiously named Ping, Pang, and Pong, redolent of the traditional clowns of Italian theatre commedia dell’arte. They were not just comedic but unquestionably acrobatic, performing a series of impressive movements, tumbles, and rolls that positively bordered on the athletic. That they possessed fine voices was almost incidental. That said, baritone Hansung Yoo’s role in Ping has a voice of truly stentorian qualities. Rich and vibrant, he sang a quite evocative rendition ofHo una casa nell’Honan’ at the beginning of Act two, where he laments over the memory of his old home and life from another time. He is ably matched and supported by Aled Hall and Michael Gibson, Pang, and Pong, respectively, whose sweet tenor voices blend well, producing fine harmony and interaction. Gibson, particularly, displayed great physicality in this role.

Tenor Alexander Kravets sits (literally) in the role of Princess Turandot’s father and ‘Son of Heaven’ Emperor Altoum. He enters the stage by way of a clever contraption that lowers him from the ‘sky’, seated on his ostentatious throne. A Royal Opera House regular, Kravets has a fine tenor voice and can ham it up nicely; here, portraying a very ancient, geriatric ruler who affects a pronounced tremor in his arm, something he keeps up throughout his whole appearance, not an inconsiderable amount of time, making for quite a physical achievement.

Vitalij Kowaljow is cast as Timur, Calaf’s father. He has a wonderfully sonorous bass voice which he used to deliver richly resonant tones. His ‘Liù! Liù! sorgi! Sorgi! È l’ora chiara d’ogni risveglio!’ performed at the demise of Liù, was anguished, and his singing of  ‘Ah! delitto orrendo!’ was assertive and compelling.

Blaise Malaba sings the role of the Mandarin, a pleasing warm bass that he directs well, but given the fictional gravity and importance of this role, town crier for the people of Peking, it required a voice of greater dimensions.

Technical Theater

I have already noted the visual splendor of this production, and word must go to inspired British designer, the late Sally Jacobs, who devised some quite sumptuous and inspired scenery, not least the tiered galleries, elaborate dragons, the wonderful, seemingly pure silk costumes and effective face masks.

Lighting director F. Mitchell Dana made much valuable contribution with some clever silhouetting, smoke, and imaginative illumination replicating moonlight and sunlight, which served to intensify the drama at certain key points.

All in all, a spectacular feast for the eyes and ears, delivered by a strong and capable cast functioning in a beautiful, elaborate stage setting.

Orchestra and Choir Shine

Ultimately, though, the last word must go to the overall victors, the music of Giacomo Puccini, the Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House, and its guide and implementer on this performance, Sir Antonio Pappano. No conductor has ever come close to his rendition orchestrally. This is Pappano’s FIRST time conducting “Turandot” in the orchestra pit, having previously shown little interest in the opera. He somehow manages to elucidate and interpret this score in a way that makes it infinitely superior to any other performance. He seems to coax, accentuate, and present passages with greater nuances that elicit and heighten the emotions.

The choir was divine, powerful in its ministrations in the dramatic moments yet movingly harmonious in the softer passages. The children’s choir from the Youth Opera Company (the Royal Opera House’s in-house chorus of 9- to 13-year-olds) was angelic. Pappano seemed to implement subtle, barely perceptible pauses that heightened the moment’s tension. In the most ardent and enthusiastic orchestral passages that combined with the performers, he managed to moderate the orchestra in a way that didn’t drown out the voices yet didn’t tangibly diminish the volume. I have already mentioned Puccini’s predilection for energetic and vigorous orchestration, which sometimes comes across as overly brash and discordant. But there was none of that, and, for the first time, this reviewer was willing to accept that this was, perhaps, as others have opined, Puccini’s opus.

He may well have “laid down his pen” in the final act, as Toscanini is quoted as having said on the opening night, but on THIS opening night, at least, I suspect he would have been mightily enlivened.


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