Turandot – Iréne Theorin
Altoum – Alasdair Elliott
Timur – Matthew Rose
Calaf – Alfred Kim
Liù – Ailyn Pérez
Ping – Grant Doyle
Pang – David Butt Philip
Pong – Luis Gomes
Mandarin – Ashley Riches
Royal Opera Chorus, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Nicola Luisotti.
Stage Director – Andrei Serban
Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London. Tuesday, March 4th, 2014.
This was the second revival of the Royal Opera’s 30-year old Turandot in the 2013 – 14 season. I caught it last September but didn’t get a chance to write about it at the time. It was notable for the stunning assumption of the title role by Lise Lindstrom who rode the waves of sound in the most incredible way. This time the attraction for me was the Liù of the wonderful Chicago soprano Ailyn Pérez and Iréne Theorin in the title role. Theorin I saw as Elektra at the Bastille last December and at the time I had trouble hearing her due to the Bastille’s poor acoustic. I also saw Pérez at the start of January as an outstanding Manon in the Royal Opera’s staging of Massenet’s opera. There she was just astonishing, the voice so easily produced but with a clarity of diction that evades the vast majority of non-francophone and even many francophone singers. That Manon was in a week where I also saw ENO’s peerless Peter Grimes – where the ENO Chorus clearly positioned itself as one of the very best – and the Royal Opera Don Giovanni. Unfortunately, I only had time then to write about one of those shows but the fact that I didn’t mention the others has no bearing on their superlative quality.
I’ve always found Turandot a problematic work. Leaving aside the fact that Puccini didn’t live to finish it, it is often hard to look beyond the blatant sexism, misogyny and racism that pervades the work. And yet, that gladiatorial combat of vocalism between Turandot and Calaf in act 2, the tear-jerking arias for Liù that are a gift to any lyric soprano with an impeccable technique, and those wonderful choruses that give the best opera choruses an opportunity to shine combine to make it a really memorable evening in the theatre.
I’ve always thought that there are three ways for directors to approach the work. To play it relatively straight and give it lots of ‘local’ colour, to set it in some far off fantasy land that is not quite of this world or a revisionist staging that really tries to engage with the problematic issues that the piece raises. I long for the day that Calixto Bieito takes on the work as I imagine his staging would really look at the piece afresh. Andrei Serban’s staging just plays it straight and is visually quite impressive. There is not much soul to it and characters are two-dimensional as if dwarfed by all the stage business going on around them. It also looks its age and it is surely time for the Royal Opera to invest in a new staging. It’s a great ‘show’ but provides no new insights nor does it make one think afresh about the work.
The real attraction of this particular revival though was in the singing. In the title role, Iréne Theorin, truly sang Puccini’s fiendishly difficult music. She was by far the most musical Turandot I’ve ever heard. Despite her almost constant diet of Brünnhildes and Elektras, her vocal health is astounding. The voice seemingly has no limits, the tone is bright and the top brilliant. Her diction was a bit Sutherland-esque and she wasn’t the fire-breathing Turandot that others have been but she was a more human and warmer character. Very impressive.
Ailyn Pérez confirmed the wonderful impressions she made as Manon. Again, a particular strength in her singing was the clarity and completely idiomatic nature of her diction. The line was beautifully phrased and her silvery yet rich lyric soprano filled the house beautifully. Yet there was much more than that. There is a vulnerability to the tone that goes straight to the heart and recalls Victoria de los Ángeles. Just like the Catalan singer, Pérez uses the warmth of her tone in the most affecting way. We are so lucky to have her three times at the Royal Opera this season and I am very much looking forward to her forthcoming Violetta. A remarkable artist and a major talent.
The men were decent without being spectacular. Alfred Kim displayed a firm tenor that was notable for its richness and consistency of tone and he tried very hard to phrase the music and make much of the words. It wasn’t the most memorable assumption but he hit all the big moments, a nice spot-on top C in the riddle scene and got through ‘that’ aria efficiently enough and for that we must be grateful. Matthew Rose seemed to me to be having an off-night. The richness of tone was there but there was also a tendency to sing on the sharp side of the note. The trio of ministers was more than competent, especially Grant Doyle’s fluently-sung Ping.
It seems that every time I write about the Royal Opera Chorus I’m quite negative and I do hate being negative. Yet, I really feel that a lot of work needs to be done there to bring it up to the standard that the house should really be offering. Ensemble was not unanimous, there were several individual voices sticking out and the wobbly tone was tiresome. What other choruses such as ENO’s or that of the Berlin Deutsche Oper have in common is a discipline of ensemble and unanimity of tone that the Royal Opera Chorus lacks. There are obviously some very good individual singers in the chorus but collectively it doesn’t seem to work.
Nicola Luisotti is so much more at home with Puccini than he is with Mozart. His Royal Opera Nabucco was the best example of Verdi conducting that I have heard at Covent Garden and I feel the same way about his Puccini. He brought out so much colour in the orchestration and elicited playing from the orchestra that was both ravishing and brutal. The problem was that there were major ensemble issues between the chorus and the pit and often within the orchestra itself. I can’t figure out why that was – Luisotti’s beat was perfectly clear – and I can only put it down to fatigue as they are dealing with quite a few demanding scores right now. I definitely want to hear more Verdi and Puccini from Luisotti and I sincerely hope that the Royal Opera invites him back soon in this repertoire.
This was musically one of the most memorable Turandots I’ve heard. The ladies were outstanding and it was well-executed with a very solid cast. The staging is showing its age but it is definitely worth seeing for the stunning contributions of Theorin & Pérez. Both are undoubtedly two major stars.