Turandot - English National Opera, 16 November 2009
Sure, the glossy Chinese gastropalace and its population of post-modern archetypes look good in pics. That's because the designs are imaginative and meticulously executed. Even if we’ve seen some of the ideas before – the last act’s tiled kitchen from Goold’s Macbeth, the animal masks and typeface projections from his Enron, to name a couple – they’re still original enough to constitute an aesthetic rather than a shortage of ideas.
The problem is they're nothing more than an artsy backdrop to some decidedly old-fashioned stand and deliver action. Goold is used to working with the likes of Michael Gambon and Patrick Stewart. Here he’s saddled with a genre of performers for whom acting skills are a helpful bonus, not than a job requirement. That’s not to say that this cast are bad actors, just that they’re typical singers, and they need more direction than they’ve received here to bring out their best. The principals are left pretty much to their own devices. Amanda Echalaz as Liù reprised the memorable drug-addled victim of her OHP Un ballo in maschera. Kirsten Blanck (Turandot) has clearly seen a few Siouxsie videos. Gwyn Hughes Jones (Calaf) just wanders round in his cheap mac like a lost tourist.
The individually-costumed and fussily-blocked chorus and the superfluous dancers are more of a distraction than a compensation. Perhaps he’s trying to say that even people who consider themselves individuals can become complicit in a murderous regime. Whatever. That’s a side dish – it’s not what Turandot is about. When it comes to telling the real story, what Goold serves up is a concert performance in cool frocks.
The only character Goold shows much interest in is one he's grafted on. 'The Writer' - presumably a reflection of Puccini - is an irritating silent witness and occasional participant. He scribbles away in a book until bloodily despatched at Turandot's command towards the end - not uncoincidentally, at the point Puccini stopped writing. His book is picked up by a pig-headed dancer who writes the last few pages. You couldn't offer a clearer opinion of Alfano’s completion than that, but did we really have to suffer the previous hour and half to get there? To most operagoers, whether they like Turandot or not, Puccini's failure to complete it is simply a footnote, but Goold's staging elevates it to the raison d'etre of the entire production.
Relief came only from a handful of sterling vocal performances in the central roles, chief among them Amanda Echalaz’s thrilling Liù. Gwyn Hughes Jones offered a blank slate of a Calaf, unconvincing in his passion for the ice princess. At least he sang with some ardour and assurance. A more detailed portrayal would make him truly terrific in this part. Kirsten Blanck’s Turandot was heroically powerful, served up in a stern Marlene Dietrich accent with gale force top notes. Benedict Nelson’s
Edward Gardner hammered the score into submission as if he was repaying a grudge. It was a loud and dirty fight.
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