Arts: Opera: Knocked out by an oriental spectacular

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The Independent Culture
PEOPLE HAVE been saying that 1999 is a lean year for Edinburgh Festival opera. The excellent Scottish Opera is offering a new Verdi Macbeth, produced by Luc Bondy. Apart from this, there is a concert performance of Britten's Rape of Lucretia and a couple of oddities - a Japanese performance of Puccini's Turandot and a modern Chinese opera (Life on a string by Qu Xiao-song). And that's it.

Bunkamura is not exactly an opera company. This Tokyo institution promotes all sorts of activities, including plays, operas and concerts. Its new Turandot has been mounted as a collaboration with the Festival. And we had better say at once - even if this were the only opera on the programme, 1999 would still be a knockout.

The dancer Saburo Teshigawara is director and designer. Somehow, he has achieved a dazzling spectacle without any real stage sets - just a few curtains and flats - and with costumes that are quite plain. It's mainly done with shapely movement and dance. There are some real dancers (the half-naked executioners gave a thrill of horror) and even the singers had been trained to step, pose and gesture so that everything harmonised with the music. Here, all was grace, expression, the oriental stylisation naturally ringing true. Together with sensational lighting (with a memorable image of the moon) the effect was visually gorgeous.

Teshigawara had even found singers who were equal to these impossible roles. His Turandot, Chieko Shimohara, had a voice like a slab of concrete, massive, a bit crude, with a cracking break between chest and head. She was all vocal muscle and thrill, and she looked attractive too.

Calaf was a Chinese singer, Deng Feng Zhao. One suspects that his mettlesome, ringing tenor is not fully developed yet. At present, he conserves his energies, never quite letting rip - not even in "Nessun dorma". But this is a voice of the Pavarotti type, and has a big future. There was a truly great Liu. Chen Sue Panariello is not only a flexible, colourful singer; she is also a convincing actress, and she made "Signore ascolta" into a modest, gentle supplication that was moving beyond words.

Communication between the conductor, Michiyoshi Inoue, and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra was often on the blink. Inoue ambled along and the players struggled to fit things together, which took some of the edge off this performance. But nothing could efface the overall devastating effect, which had the huge audience shouting and stamping.

Raymond Monelle