Opera Review

Puccini Turandot. Welsh National Opera. Apollo Theatre, Oxford. 25 March 2000.

It is always a pleasure to go to the Apollo Theatre in Oxford for the regular visits of Welsh National Opera, one of the UK's finest companies, and far less expensive to attend than Covent Garden. From London, the highly efficient 'Oxford Tube' double-decker coach departs from Victoria Station every few minutes, offering an incredibly inexpensive, hassle-free, ride right to the theatre; an easy day trip (or for a weekend in Oxford to catch more than one opera). The Apollo has good, bright acoustics and excellent sight lines. There is no orchestra pit, but we have always found that the balance problems are well solved and the singers are able to project their voices in equal partnership with the orchestra without strain, no mean achievement on both sides.

Turandot was begun by Puccini in 1920 and first performed 1926; he had died in 1924 leaving sketches of the ending, completed by Alfano. With Turandot, Puccini had kept his finger on the pulse of the time, in tune not only with musical developments, but also with an uncanny awareness of the political extremisms which were taking shape after the First World War.

Turandot deals with despotism, abuse of power, torture, mass murder and connivance through overt or tacit support. To these evils it opposes love, pity, steadfastness, faithfulness and resistance. These issues are present in the form of a fantastical fable based by librettists Adami and Simoni upon a 1762 play by Carlo Gozzi, that, in turn, had its roots in an early 18 C. collection of contes Persan (Persian tales), in which a nurse tries to persuade her ward that not all men are unfaithful (the flip side of the Cosi fan tutte coin!). The transposition of contemporary themes to a far off East is in the familiar Orientalist tradition. It can be seen as a way of talking about ourselves at a distance!

Christopher Alden's WNO production has resisted the allure of exoticism which, in conventional presentations, has tended to diminish the serious themes. It does not shy away from making direct links to abuses of power in our own day. It resists the process of devaluing the East (in this case China) through negative cultural stereotypes. Decadence, brutality, unthinking conformity and constricting bureaucracies are shown as our problems.

We are at first confronted by a large wall, full of frontal photographs of victims, staring us in the face. There is no escaping the awareness that real people are being jailed, tortured, killed and 'disappeared' right now, as a result of cynical disregard for just and humane values. We, the audience, become the onlookers but, hopefully, not identified with the pitiless 'army' of self-righteous supporters, which are embodied in this Oxford production with frightening clarity. For 'acoustical' reasons the chorus was not dressed as intended by the production team in heavy Eastern garb - found to muffle the sound - but instead in severe modern black and white uniforms with ties; that decision necessitating a bland and inscrutable supposed 'explanation' inserted with the programme. That left no-one any the wiser, but revealed a characteristic operatic spat behind the scenes! No matter; in terms of this analysis, the costume change strengthened the drama.

Turandot is a classic morality tale about good having to be seen to triumph over evil. The anti-heroine is a beautiful, clever, but heartless and ruthless, tyrant, responsible for killing her suitors. We see one of them, appropriately, given the origins of the libretto, the Prince of Persia, on his way to execution. In this production however Turandot's long delayed appearance is not as an exotic monster, imposingly costumed to magnify her entrance, but instead as a familiar type, the 'power-dressed' executive

On the face of it, it is difficult to credit why the stranger Calaf, or any reasonable man, should court the likelihood of being murdered on the off chance of winning this dreadful prize.

By removing the issues in to the realm of the mythic, and through a feminising of evil, symbols of hope are created. The life-enhancing power of love and sexual attraction leaves scope to conquer barbarous injustice. Turandot is out of control. Her Emperor father, by extension a symbol of social institutions, has no power over her. His movements, and his freedom of action, are curtailed literally and metaphorically. He is costumed in a robe which narrows at the ankles. He slowly drags a long train behind him, symbolic of being tied down by tradition, inertia and impotence. The only hope lies with Calaf, the good man, steadfastly overcoming and subjecting Turandot and evil.

A less complicated emotional identification and engagement circles around the young slave girl Liu, who looks after Timor, the exiled King of Tartary. She represents the ideals of the good woman and selfless love. Her devotion stands the ultimate test, the surrender of her own life to save Calaf, the object of her unrequited love.

The counterpoint to these sombre themes, by way of scherzo to lighten the atmosphere, is created by the three state ministers, Ping, Pang and Pong, introduced as gaudily dressed figures of fun, originally perhaps lampooning Eastern functionaries. Their crucial role is discussed perceptively by John Steane in the WNO programme book - these are always worth collecting. Having them here endlessly rubber-stamping documents and clunking away on ancient typewriters at their three bright red desks brings sharply to mind familiar frustrations with 'bureaucracies gone mad'.

This production of Turandot maintains focus and keeps its feet on the ground. In the third act we are confronted again, very poignantly, by all the discarded victims. Their photos lie scattered over the stage; harsh top lighting reveals a very uneven wall. No illusion is left us of a 'happy-ever-after' future as a result of the union of Turandot with Calaf. Past evil deeds will haunt them. At the end, the chorus parades the photos of the victims in silence - a chilling effect.

The singing was exemplary, with consummate teamwork by the three ministers (Matthew Hargreaves, Philip Daggett and Anthony Mee). Calaf was Dennis O'Neill, stalwart lead tenor of the company who never disappoints (we are looking forward to his Radames in Berlin's Aida shortly) and Juanita Lascarro was moving in the most sympathetic part, the patiently long-suffering Liu. Anna Shafajinskaya dominated her scenes in the central role of the drama, with economical, but always telling, gesture and splendidly focused tone, which did not need to rely upon sheer volume and swept away, for the night, memories of her great predecessors back to Eva Turner. The orchestra, under Julian Smith on the night we went, played magnificently and underpinned the drama on stage. The whole left us with a heightened regard and respect for Puccini's last work.

Alexa Woolf


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