Confessions first! This is one of my top ten operas and any director who distorts the tale does so at their peril. For me, no Chinese restaurants, as the current ENO production; or directorial ‘concepts’ à la Tony Palmer’s disaster for Scottish Opera in the 1980s - the memory of which still makes my blood boil! If Puccini spent the time to research authentic Chinese melodies and tries to create a true oriental sound from a western orchestra, then the least a director can do is make it look Chinese; and I don’t mean like the ‘over the top’ production which Franco Zeffirelli did for the New York Metropolitan Opera. The director, Chen Kaige, is an internationally acclaimed Chinese film-maker, and the sets and costumes were designed in China - all this augurs well for the show.
The basic set shows a square outside the palace, with a short flight of steps up to the palace entrance. This is altered when required for the other scenes. The director generally keeps the chorus to the sides of the steps leaving the central area free for the principal singers to act out the story, but when necessary they are allowed to flood the whole stage. This is in keeping with the role of the chorus in this opera; it is almost a character in itself … unlike the other Puccini operas where for the most part the chorus is a passive commentator or just local colour. The set and costumes are a riot of colour, giving the scenes the look of Chinese silk paintings.
There are some dubious directorial choices which border on the hilarious. In Act 1 when the Prince of Persia is about to be executed and the chorus are pleading for mercy, Turandot walks through the chorus ranks, waits as if she was expecting a bus, then walks into the palace, turning to the Prince and gesturing as if she were politely saying ‘No, thank you’ to a Big Issue seller! In Act 2 she sings her aria ‘In Questa Reggia’ dressed in a stunning red outfit (as shown on the DVD box cover), then scuttles off to reappear seconds later in a pale blue, jewel-encrusted costume complete with elaborate headdress – why? The Emperor Altoum is portrayed as an alcoholic, imbibing much wine in the second act. These are small quibbles and they don’t mar the great enjoyment I had watching this performance. Much of the acting is in stylised gestures, and the choreography is expertly handled giving the story a Chinese feel which is wholly appropriate to the opera.
On the musical side we are in good hands with Zubin Mehta who has a fine history with this opera – he was the conductor on the famous Sutherland/Caballé/Pavarotti recording for Decca which is still among the great recordings of this work.
The soloists all acquit themselves well and in particular Maria Guleghina, who must now be among the great Turandots, showing that it is not just a loud sing all through. She shades many phrases with exquisite grace giving the character real depth. Marco Berti as Calaf has the vocal heft for this role and does not disappoint with his acting either. Alexia Voulgaridou as Liu plays the vulnerable and loyal servant, has a bright soprano which she uses well but does not float the high Bs in the way Caballé and others do.
The trio of ministers act and sing well in a good ensemble performing some tricky choreography; and there are fine performances from the rest of the cast. The chorus make a fine sound – robust and forceful when needed, but also soft and ethereal, as at the death of Liu. The orchestral sound is full of details which can be missed even on good audio-only recordings, and the balance between pit and stage is about ideal.
There is a cut in the last act so we don’t get Turandot’s ‘Del primo pianto’ which allows a more gradual change in her character – a pity, as I’m sure Maria Guleghina would have found some new nuances in this music.
The video direction is well balanced between the intimate moments and the grand scenes, focusing on the soloists at key moments to see their reactions to events. There are a couple of howlers in the English subtitles – but I won’t spoil the surprise!
The bonus track is a documentary filmed during the rehearsals and includes interviews with the director and cast. There are also shots of the outside of the Palau de les Arts “Reina Sofia” showing the stunning architecture of Valencia’s new theatre complex.