Sat 28 May
Words: STEPHEN NOTTINGHAM
Christopher Alden believes a good opera revival should be as alive as when it was first seen. His staging of Puccini’s Turandot premiered at the New Theatre, Cardiff, to great acclaim in 1994. Now, after several revivals, Alden (and Revival Director Caroline Chaney) transfer Welsh National Opera’s Turandot to the Wales Millennium Centre stage for the first time.
Turandot is usually staged as a lavish oriental spectacle. In contrast, Alden’s Peking inhabits a world of political fable (the source play by Carlo Gozzi was based on a Persian fairytale). Designer Paul Steinberg fashions a massive curved purple wall as a backdrop. On it, during Act 1, hang photos of dozens of executed men (actually WNO staff in 1994), who were unsuccessful in courting Princess Turandot. Like mugshots from the Mussolini era (he came to power as Puccini wrote the opera) taken with a period camera (the tenor’s image is added to the gallery), they could stand for victims of any modern-day dictatorship.
The opera starts abruptly, with Calaf, his ailing father, and the servant girl Liù, entering an emperor’s court, just as the Prince of Persia is being executed. Contrary to all advice, Calaf bangs the gong three times to accept the challenge of the three riddles, to attempt to win Turandot’s hand.
Act 2 opens on a wonderfully-realized scene with the colour-coded civil servants Ping, Pang and Pong sitting at their desks, using their Remington typewriters as percussion instruments. There is excellent lighting design, using primary colours, in this act by Heather Carson, including a stunning reveal of the extended chorus (as identical citizens).
Calaf correctly answers the riddles in Act 3, but gives the reluctant Turandot an opt-out clause if she can discover his name by dawn. No one sleeps. All means necessary are taken, including the torture of Liù.
WNO’s Music Director Lothar Koenigs conducts Turandot for the first time. Aided by fine playing throughout the orchestra, his interpretation makes even the most familiar passages sound fresh. The opera is sung in Italian (with Welsh and English surtitles) by a first-rate cast. WNO favourites Rebecca Evans, in her role debut as Liù, and Gwyn Hughes Jones as Calaf are in great form. Liù is given arias that embody the emotional heart of the story, and they are here beautifully delivered. The Ukrainian-born diva Anna Shafajinskaia returns in the role of Turandot, and quickly establishes the cold-hearted character of the princess with her powerful and precise soprano; although she is less successful when conveying the hero’s love interest.
However, this is a problem faced in every production of Turandot. Puccini died before completing the opera; indeed, he found it difficult to complete. How can Calaf convincingly fall for the monstrous Turandot, especially when Liù has been given all the best tunes? Alden’s solution is to use the shorter version of the Act 3 conclusion (by Puccini’s student Alfano) and to finish the opera firmly in the realm of fable. Therefore, Liù’s sacrifice (for her love of Calaf) enables Turandot to be reborn into a woman deserving of Calaf’s love (a wicked spell is broken and she literally casts off her black starry mantle).
After 17 years, this production still pulses with life. It fully exploits the larger WMC stage, and its depiction of a chilling tyranny is just as relevant today. And it is great to hear the much-travelled Nessun dorma again in its proper operatic context (where the words make sense!). Sung with great authority by Gwyn Hughes Jones, it’s worth the price of admission alone.
Turandot can be seen at the WMC on Tues 31 May, Fri 3 June and Sun 5 June