There will be those who absolutely hate ENO's new production of Puccini's last opera, Turandot, and there will be those, like me, who will find some things to like, a few to admire even, and a great deal of stage cliché and kitsch over which to cast a weary eye. Let us start with the good bits. The ENO Chorus is on terrific form, relishing the swathes of music Puccini chose to give them and producing taut, well-focused rich sound from first to last. They sing as if they really mean it and they have been rehearsed splendidly (extra chorus and all). The ENO Orchestra is brash, confident and loud, giving music director Ed Gardner the technicolour reading he has clearly decided on, following the broad tempi he sets and always emphasising the bogus, clashing orientalism of this extraordinary score. The dynamic is mf to fff throughout, the wall of orchestral sound an impenetrable barrier to those in the first night cast with sore throats (the courtiers Ping, Pang and Pong seem to have been particularly hard-hit, and two covers were deployed, one after a near inaudible first act), so Puccinian soft, subtle legato singing was conspicuous by its absence. But the hard-driven account of the score brought a full-blooded response from all the principals: James Cresswell was a resonant, noble-sounding Timur, Gwyn Hughes-Jones a hugely attractive Calaf, with an open tenor sound, effortless in the higher tessitura and a big singing presence all evening, Amanda Echalaz a triumph as slave girl Liu (she got the ovation of the evening) and Kirsten Blanck a completely secure, big vocal presence as Turandot. More on their assumption of the roles anon. So taken overall, musical accomplishments (if not always musical values) were of a pretty high order. I have heard far worse-sung Turandots in several European houses in forty odd years of Puccini going.
But then we come to the production itself. To begin at the beginning: the curtain half rises to reveal a blood-red and gold Chinese restaurant with a vengeance. The twenty-odd tables spread right across the Coliseum's enormous stage each have a galere of characters, almost a theatrical incarnation of Peter Blake's famous record cover for Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts' Club Band. I gave up trying to clock the impersonations: but all iconic human life was onstage at director Rupert Goold's and designer Miriam Buether's gastronomic Chinese emporium. Only one table is set apart from the rest: downstage left is 'The Writer', a mute character in a light linen suit (Puccini himself?) who is to act as a master of ceremonies as the opera unfolds. For about a minute we take in the scene, to a tinkling accompaniment of stage talking and definitely non-Puccini sound, until the dissonant chords of the overture proper drown out everything else and the curtain rises to its full height, revealing enormous swing doors stage centre, clearly leading to the kitchens of this bustling Chinatown.
Turandot – the Musical springs instantly to mind, and the stage picture that designer and director together create has much in common with the big budget West End musical show of the last twenty years. This will annoy opera purists, but I have to say I do not mind the approach, particularly because Goold keeps a firm grip on his moving canvas of people, never allowing them to mill aimlessly around, always ensuring that the blocking and the sightlines emphasise the musical architecture of the principal parts. So Timur is in the right place onstage as we are introduced to him, Liu – a touch of heroin chic about her – emerges from nowhere among a crowd of more exotically dressed party-goers. One can quarrel with the details: waiters emerge from the swing doors to the kitchens, decapitated heads of failed suitors on their silver salvers. Are they being processed into dishes of the day? A troupe of long-legged dancers in see-through macs make their entrance, a sort of female praetorian guard for Turandot (and vaguely reminiscent of Colonel Qadhafi's all-female entourage of security guards). What is their dramatic function? Are they there as a tease for the long-delayed appearance onstage of Turandot herself? Goold comes up with all these cameos, and in the process probably raises more questions than he answers, but the show moves efficiently along and – within the dramaturgy that Goold has adopted – is well enough made. What such a bustling, commercial canvas has to tell us about the psychology and motivations of the principal characters is less clear to me, however, and I suspect that an opera-goer seeing Turandot for the first time in this production will find the narrative completely baffling.
Act 2 scene 1 uses the height of the stage: Ping, Pang and Pong conduct their musings in a scaffold tower that supports a gigantic neon advertisement. Fragments of the words 'Imperial Palace' shine out into the night. For the succeeding trial scene we are again in the red front of house décor of Act One, staling slightly by repetition but making economic use of the constructed set. But then, and most bizarrely, Act Three takes place in the bare white tiled kitchens that were visible through the swing doors of Act One. The bodies of Turandot's past victims hang like hams from the ceiling. Being a kitchen, there is an abundance of knives and meat cleavers: there is also a food preparation bench that serves for the rack on which Liu is tortured, and an outsize bottle of bleach which she drains to commit suicide. I was reminded of the ROH set's for Keith Warner's production of Wozzeck: clinical, bare to the point of austerity, a built arena in which cruel and sadistic things happen. That it also happens to serve as the palace gardens by night (when none shall sleep) and as the setting for Turandot herself finally to find love makes no real sense, except that Goold has Turandot kill off 'The Writer' with her sword as she is released from her frigidity by Calaf's passionate kiss, and the blood capsule that The Writer releases (rugby players take note) fits in well with the abattoir atmosphere of the setting. But that is about all that can be said for a bizarre directorial choice. I cannot say for certain, but it seemed to me that the death of The Writer came at almost exactly the point that Alfano takes over from Puccini to finish the opera – subtle it is not.
The quality of the singing and playing apart, what is there to like? Well, it is a lively, exuberant show throughout, the pace never flags and there is always something – often far too much – going on onstage throughout the evening. For every ten ideas, perhaps one works. But I found myself in the late evening air afterwards pondering on the words of Joseph Kerman, author of the seminal Opera as Drama, whose strictures on Turandot are well known: “Rarely has myth been so emptily employed as in this absurd extravaganza. Drama is entirely out of the question”. And that seems to me to be the nub of the problem that Goold's staging has not even attempted to tackle, let alone solve. Timur and Calaf, Liu and Turandot are no more than four bizarrely attired characters in a sea of humanity, singing and acting their narratives without even the semblance of a drama that connects them. Drama indeed, in this Turandot, is certainly out of the question.
To return to the principals: I was immensely impressed with the vocal qualities of Kirsten Blanck as Turandot. She has a clear, focused, dramatic soprano sound and is rock steady in the middle of every note: no gratuitous vibrato but a steely tone and huge reserves of power for the big moments. There is one problem: the English text she sings (which is fussy and not singer-friendly) is only vaguely discernible. On this occasion, thank goodness for the English surtitles. There is another problem too, not of her making: her appearance and costume are absurd. Given the idiom in which Goold has set the piece, and given the 'Kill Bill' photo in the programme of Uma Thurman, the attractive Blanck could easily have been dressed in a chic and elegant white evening gown. Instead she is made to look like an unattractive harridan in a hideous frock: Katisha from The Mikado springs to mind. This really is a wasted opportunity.
Amanda Echalaz as Liu is no more attractively costumed, looking like a dowdy, 'dress down' teenager, but the voice and stage presence are magnetic and her account of the role is thrilling. It has been argued that Liu is the character in whom Puccini was most interested (for complicated reasons in his personal life) and Echalaz was certainly the star performer in this production: her vocal technique is secure, the voice in bloom and she can spin the notes effortlessly in the higher register. Her Act One solo drew a spontaneous ovation: her Third Act curtain call demonstrated the impact she made. If I had any prior fears that the sheer size of the Coliseum might diminish the impact of her voice (which I have heard in much smaller arenas in the past) I need not have worried: this was a Liu to treasure.
And a final word for Gwyn Hughes Jones as Calaf, who rose with calm assurance to the occasion and who delivered the world's most famous tenor aria with vocal aplomb. His appearance was strange too: black shirt with bright yellow kipper tie suggested the Italian mafia rather than a wandering Chinese prince, but the voice was in terrific shape and his words always well articulated and audible. His tenor is bright and warm, not a hint of the nasal sound that afflicts some exponents of the role, and he, like his leading lady, had ample reserves of power. If only he had been given some dramatic direction, this would have been four star stuff.
So, a hugely mixed bag. Those who regard Turandot as second-rate and meretricious will have their prejudices confirmed. Those who, like me, have seen memorable productions of the opera in the past will know how far short this production falls. What I take from it is great enjoyment of a rousing evening's singing, frustration that the potential of two excellently-cast singers in the roles of Turandot and Calaf should have been neglected by the director, and excitement that ENO has a young singer – Echalaz – who will clearly go on to do great things in the house. For an evening with a Chinese takeaway, that isn't too bad.