Ah Turandot we meet again. I must be one of the most squeamish people when it comes to confronting most of Puccini’s output. His sentimentality and usual lack of in depth characterisation usually leave me from totally cold to in a state of fury. Attended Thursday’s performance just to see the Liù of Ailyn Pérez, after having to wait for over a year to see here again in London after her last recital it is a huge source of pleasure to have her sing Manon, Liù and Violetta in the space of a few months. The production by Andrei Serban dates back to 1984 and it was first seen in Los Angles as part of the cultural festival for the Olympics. It has all the hallmarks of an 80s production, stylisation, colour blocked costumes, affluence of unnecessary dancers and overtly detailed sets and a props. The conducting by Nicola Luisotti was precise and gave the score its expected luminosity and garish colouring. Of course what can be said about Puccini’s second take on Eastern exotica? If Madama Butterfly has a certain solemnity to it, Turandot is a confusing melange of garish Orientalist motifs and over-stretched ideas. Surely in 1924 this score must have sounded as out of date as anything written 30 years earlier. When one starts thinking what Strauss was producing at the same time it makes Puccini look like a spent force, rehashing the same old language to the same old dubious Orientalist clichés and paper thin characters.
Strauss at that point had written Salome, Elektra, Der Rosenkavalier, Ariadne auf Naxos and Die Frau ohne Schatten all rather varied and most approaching the status of a musical masterpiece, frequently with excellent libretti. The reverence for Puccini’s output is simply puzzling to me. In Turandot the main interest is the dreaded riddle scene in Act Two, what can only be described as a screaming match not akin to two washerwomen having a fight. A total vacuity of purpose and emotional content marks it as the black hole in the heart of the work. Do we really care about Turandot’s story or about Calaf’s quest…nope, I couldn’t give a toss. Both protagonists are an offensive approximation of what Eastern characters ought to be, brutal and not in any way relating to the audience. The opera is all-consumed with the otherness of the story to actually care to tell it well.
The production replaced the 1963 Cecil Beaton designed production by Sandro Sequi. The visual inspiration seems to be in equal measures the contemporary world of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (also of 1984 vintage) and low-grade Chinese lanterns from the supermarket. The costumes being a particularly offensive aspect, being in ugly bright colour-blocked polyester are neither flattering or in any way attractive. The set is a mix of textured wood and trellis-work with some oversized garden ornaments and ritualistic objects. Clearly the brief was to create a more austere setting from Beaton’s busy production. But clearly that quest for simplicity did not go far enough with ugly carry ons and curious masked figures showing up at any opportunity. The overall feel reminds me of the recent appalling staging of Judith Weir’s disastrous new opera Miss Fortune, which of course went one better, by including a troupe of break dancers! But the overall sinking feeling was a common factor. When Calaf strikes the giant gong that magically appears from the sky (all very post-modern, get it?) he pretends to strike it while the sound comes from the pit. Making this highly theatrical gesture into a total gimmick and a disappointing start of many more wasted grand gestures. The final parade of the lifeless body of Liù on top of a dragon shaped carriage across the stage as Turandot and Calaf finally kiss inside a garden structure is both insensitive, verging on the simplistically repugnant.
The musical side of the evening was certainly world class with excellent performances by the orchestra and the chorus. With Iréne Theorin being one of the great Turandots of our times, she lived up to the expectation with some truly sterling singing and a much more subtle take on Act Three than usual, managing to inject a dose of humanity in Puccini’s bloodless heroine. Ailyn Pérez was a meltingly beautiful Liù with any dramatic opportunities that presented themselves grabbed with both hands. She vibrated with humanity so brightly that one forgot about everything else. Matthew Rose was a very strong Timur, despite his ridiculous costuming. Alfred Kim’s Calaf was very well done but lacking individuality. The horribly cringeworthy Ping Pong Pang caricature terror trio were given excellent performances by Grant Doyle, David Butt Philip and Luis Gomes, again despite the mediocrity of the sung material.
In the field of art history the nasty imperialist background of Orientalism was given a shake up decades ago, thanks to Edward Said. Such unquestioning and purely illustrative productions of Turandot are displaying an unwillingness to acknowledge the problematic subject matter and the inbuilt misogyny of this opera. In the 21st century we are meant to have more meaningful and nuanced reactions to the grubby Imperialist past of Europe and to confront the artworks that glorified it. A more searching production that dissects the patronising “otherness” of both the score and the characters has to be the only viable solution to the crowd-pleaser lollipop that this work has become.
The Curtain call
Some tweets from the evening