Turandot, Coliseum, London
The Adventures of Mr Broucek, Grand Theatre, Leeds
Manchester Camerata, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester
A cannibalistic take on 'Turandot' is hard to digest, while Janácek's problem child gets a real boost
Sunday 18 October 2009
Set in the dining room of the Imperial Palace restaurant, Rupert Goold's English National Opera production of Turandot is unlikely to endear him to Chinese caterers.
Whip-cracking waitresses in shrink-wrapped cheongsams menace a cannibalistic clientele of occidental stereotypes and celebrity lookalikes while dancing chefs with meat-cleavers provide the cabaret. In the kitchen hang headless corpses, the colour of air-dried duck. Outside on the fire escape, by the necrotic light of a neon sign, bin liners are used for body-bags. It's not a kosher restaurant – the chefs have pigs' heads – yet three Hassidim are among the diners.
Marilyn Manson is there too, perhaps drawn by the cabinets of mutilated baby dolls. There's a clown, two Chelsea pensioners, three Elvis impersonators, Eddie Izzard, Margaret Thatcher, a mope of Emos, a yawn of golfers, a sinister child (young Turandot), and a faun-like youth (the Prince of Persia) who is destined to be the next day's chef's special. Wow, you might think as the first splash of gore hits the wall. Then, huh? For despite the cornucopia of contemporary clichés, despite the nods to Greenaway, Tarantino and Godfrey Ho, and despite the addition of a Wes Craven sub-plot that sees a silent Writer (Scott Handy) sliced and diced by the offspring of his over-active imagination, Goold's Turandot is a park-and-bark production in postmodern clothing.
Quite what Princess Turandot's famous perfume might be in this context, I don't know. Spring onion? But I feel too little affection for Turandot to be offended by Goold's critique or William Radice's Barbara Cartlandesque translation. For all the neurotic blaze of Puccini's unfinished Orientalist orchestration, feebly mimicked in Alfano's posthumous conclusion, it is hard to sympathise with Calaf (Gwyn Hughes Jones), whose obsessive desire for the phallophobic princess (Kirsten Blanck) leads to the torture of Liu (Amanda Echalaz) and a sleepless night for the people of Peking. If I were Turandot, I wouldn't fancy his offer of "smouldering fingers" and "quivering kisses" either. At least, not without a hot towel to hand. But some people just can't take no for an answer.
Though Goold's direction of singers is rice pancake-thin, Turandot is well sung by the chorus and principals and well, if loudly, played by the orchestra under Edward Gardner. First seen as an ice sculpture (a cute touch by designer Miriam Buether), then corseted in a wedding dress that would make any dramatic soprano look like a shot-putter, Blanck has a voice that could clean ovens. Hughes Jones nails Calaf's arias with his handsome, idiomatic sound, but remains anonymous in a rumpled CID mackintosh. As the masochistic Liu, Echalaz sings beautifully, expanding her repertoire of unusual operatic suicides by downing a bottle of bleach. On the fire escape, Benedict Nelson's Ping is a vibrant foil to the ailing Pang and Pong. Stuart Kale is a poignant Emperor (here a tramp dragged in from the street), Iain Paterson a powerful Mandarin.
Janácek's The Adventures of Mr Broucek is given a witty and perceptive updating in John Fulljames's Opera North and Scottish Opera co-production. The year is 1968, when Russia sent tortoises into space and tanks into Prague. The place is the Vikarka Inn, where Broucek, the beer-addled, sausage-fancying everyman of Svatopluk Cech's satirical novels, is dreaming of the moon and the Hussite uprising of 1420.
With Finn Ross's video projections blending news footage with milky, Méliès fantasy and a moon-landing in which the Czech flag is planted on the pockmarked surface, this gentle satire is a delight. Horrified to find the Moon occupied by intellectuals in thrall to a jock-strapped Shining Radiance (Donald Maxwell), and baffled by 15th-century doctrinal debate, John Graham-Hall's flustered Broucek is offset by Jeffrey Lloyd Roberts, swaggering as Mazal, Starry Sky-Blue and Petrik, while Anne Sophie Duprels is lusty by turns as Malinka, Etherea and Kunka. Claire Wild is sparky as Apprentice, Prodigy and Scholar, Jonathan Best is a lugubrious Sacristan, Lunabor and Domsik, and Richard Burkhard is strong as the Student, Brilliant Cloud and Vacek. Long held as Janácek's problem child, the score gleams under Martin André's musical direction.
Manchester Camerata's ongoing cycle of Beethoven symphonies with Douglas Boyd has been a revelation, fusing the sharp articulation of historically informed performance with richness of expression and warmth of legato. Last Friday's performance of the Eighth, preceded by William Alwyn's lovely Autumn Legend and Kurt Schwertsik's Dada-ist Shrunken Symphony, was as cogent as it was bracing. Boyd has an extraordinary gift for narrative flow and startling details, and the madcap Allegro vivace had elegance, substance and verve. Brahms's Piano Concerto No 1 sounded similarly well-prepared, though soloist Jonathan Biss was too busy to listen to the orchestra.
'Turandot' (0871 911 0200) to 12 Dec; 'The Adventures of Mr Broucek' (0844 848 2720) to 23 Oct
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