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Seen and Heard Opera Review

PUCCINI Turandot, Soloists, Chorus & Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Wednesday, January 26th, 2005 (CC)

Director Jeremy Sutcliffe’s revival of Andrei Serban’s Turandot is a visual treat. From the very opening (red banners draped over the stage, masks suspended from the ceiling, costumes a riot of colour) one enters an at once hyper-real yet distanced world. There are even some nods towards Baroque opera convention, in singers descending from on high gilded with fake golden clouds. Suspended heads on sticks represent the fallen suitors, souls who dream of the Princess Turandot. Lighting is a dream – the evening shadows of the end of Act I (conveyed by light filtering through slits in windows) are marvellously atmospheric, for example. Similarly for Act III, lanterns illuminate the nocturnal scene, with slatted shafts complementing this.

The Covent Garden orchestra was on sparking form under the still under-rated Mark Elder. But there were flies in the ointment, beginning with the indisposition of the Calaf, Vladimir Galouzine, a tenor who has toured this role in Paris, the Met, Houston, Madrid and Marseilles. Instead, we had Ian Storey. Not the happiest of substitutions, it has to be admitted... weak lower register, drowned by the orchestra frequently in Act I, and wooden acting. Curiously ‘Nessun dorma’ (which of course occurs in Act III) revealed the lower notes are there, really, and similarly there was power up top too. One has to ask, could he have been saving himself for the ‘big’ moment? Well, maybe, but even in moments of quiet where it was dramatic power that is required (as he sets Turandot his riddle for her towards the end of Act II, for example), he was tremulous.

His Princess Turandot was US soprano Audrey Stottler, making her ROH debut in this role (a role she debuted in at the Met in 2002). Allegedly this is her 29th production of Turandot. Generous of size she may be, but her voice does not carry the strength that her girth might be seen to imply. Her tuning in In questa reggia, as she explains her reasoning behind her use of riddles, was actually quite painful, made all the more obvious because of the lushness of the accompanying strings. Cutting tone (she could surely shatter glass at fortissimo) and the prevalent impression that Stottler was never once really inside the part left the emotions rather untouched.

There were, however, two singers that outclassed everyone else on stage, in one case comprehensively so. As Timur, Peter Rose sang with a gorgeous bass voice (he impressed last year as Bottom in ENO’s Midsummer Night's Dream). More, Rose carried an elder’s authority (no pun intended). Rose was completely inside the part (actually the only person on stage to be consistently inside their role all evening,) reminding this reviewer forcefully of Alastair Miles’ Silva (Ernani) at ENO (June last year: both share an involving projection of wisdom). Timur’s grief at Liù’s death was immensely touching.



The Korean-American Hei-Kyung Hong’s Liù was the other glistening star. She is a regular at the Met, and it is not hard to see why. Her voice at its best is simply to die for (although she could be sharp-toned at times), her Signore, ascolta (Act I) putting Calaf’s immediately-following, weak Non piangere, Liù completely in the shade. It was in Act III that Liù shone at her brightest, though, her slow-motion torture revealing her to be magnificent as she refused to reveal Calaf’s name, her entreaty to the Ice-Princess superb. Throughout her diction was exemplary (by far the best of any singer there).

As the three ministers, Ping, Pang and Pong (Quentin Hayes, Andrew Kennedy and James Edwards respectively) were a complementary mass of striking, Commedia del’arte-like colour (their obviously carefully-chosen voices were complementary, too). The chorus got significantly better as time went on. Starting off as rather surprisingly scrappy, by act II there was a real warmth coupled with significantly greater unanimity of purpose and attack.

But Turandot is more than a procession of big moments. As a dramatic entity it works supremely well, the action flowing seamlessly under Puccini’s expert hand. Act III was heard in the traditional Alfano completion. No surprise, although the use of the Berio (recently heard in London) would have made a nice change, perhaps as a homage to Berio. Interestingly, Stottler sang in the first Stateside performance of that completion. Enabling it all to flow with an inexorable force was (a batonless) Mark Elder, inspiring his orchestra to great things. The dynamic range was staggering, from whispered pianissimi to ear-shattering fortissimi; his accompanying of his singers was spot-on; his grasp of the larger dramatic picture was always secure. The strings positively glowed for Turandot’s Act III entrance, and the brass had superb bite when required. Elder conveyed the raw force and power of Puccini’s score, and for this we should all be grateful. He was simultaneously the guiding and unifying force that enabled this performance to be greater than the sum of its rather uneven (vocal) parts.

Colin Clarke

Recommended recordings:

Callas/Serafin (Milan) EMI CDS5 56307-2

Medium/Budget Price: Marton, Carreras, Maazel (live Vienna Staatsoper). Sony Classical SM2K90444: Review

Credit: Bill Cooper


The Royal Opera House January 2005

Conductor: MARK ELDER Original Production: ANDREI SERBAN Directed by: JEREMY SUTCLIFFEDesigns: SALLY JACOBS Lighting: F. MITCHELL DANAChoreography: KATE FLATT



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