Turandot, Puccini, English National Opera, London Coliseum
Friday 09 October 2009
Anyone thinking of ordering Chinese takeaway some time soon might consider doing so before seeing Rupert Goold's audacious new staging of Puccini's Turandot. Visits to one's local Red Dragon might never be the same again. Imagine an episode of Gordon Ramsay's "Kitchen Nightmares" crossed with Quentin Tarantino's
Kill Bill and you’re thinking along the right lines.
Theatre is an extraordinary thing and if any one had told me in advance what the key metaphor of this staging was to be I’d probably have laughed it off. But Goold is a cunning as well as an immensely theatrical director and what he does here is to allude to the "Chinese" context whilst embracing the fantastical symbolism of this piece. No one on his stage – least of all the crucial ENO chorus (who do a spectacularly good job) – is given a Chinese makeover; there’s no pretence at that. Rather this "community" in love with death is a bunch of individuals who one and all relate to a whole raft of iconic cultural references from our times. I’ll give away no more than I have already other than to say that Goold’s objective and accomplishment here is to connect us to this community because the more connected we are, the more complicit we are. As Calaf's father Timor (the excellent James Creswell) says of the slave girl Liu’s torture and death: "We are all guilty".
Goold also addresses the problem of the opera's ending, left unfinished at Puccini’s death. Dining at his Chinese restaurant (impressively designed by Miriam Buether) is "The Writer" (Scott Handy) – an addition sure to infuriate some - and he, of course, is even more complicit in the plotting than we are. He strikes the gong committing Calaf to the fateful test, the answers to the Three Riddles are in his fortune cookies, and at the point where Puccini stopped writing, he too is cut down – bloodily in true Tarantino fashion by the Ice Princess herself (wittily her first entrance is an ice sculpture) as if at all costs to derail the unsatisfactory ending she has striven so hard to avoid.
So the inevitable conclusion is played out in "Hell's Kitchen" where the carcasses of Turandot’s victims double as dim sum. On the fire escape outside Ping, Pang, and Pong – state torturers and executioners – recall a kinder and more peaceful China whilst throwing out bin-bags of human waste.
The beauty of Puccini's "imagined" orientalism is luxuriantly and excitingly chronicled by Edward Gardner and the ENO orchestra and it’s always encouraging when a company can field a singer as impressive as Iain Paterson in the tiny role of A Mandarin. Of the principals Amanda Echalaz is an intense and scene-stealing Liu, though her dusky and exciting sound can feel a bit pushed and I long to hear her sing high and soft, to spin the imploring final note of her first act aria.
It would have been good, too, to hear more of Kirsten Blanck's words and for those that we did hear to be less accented. But this Turandot wants for nothing in vocal amplitude and she is well-wooed by Gwyn Hughes Jones' Calaf. He really impressed me with his heroic open sound, magnificently nailing the high C most Calaf's seek to avoid in the Riddle Scene and filling that aria with real tenorial rapture.
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