How ironic that the one Puccini opera left unfinished at his death should end with what has become the greatest of his hits – "Nessun Dorma". Mind you, Turandot is big on irony, most of it dispensed by Ping, Pang, and Pong, the jolly trio from old Peking's ministry of executions, and in Andrei Serban's now almost legendary Royal Opera staging, given here on the very day of the composer's 150th anniversary, they are very much the life and soul of the party.
Party? Well, Serban's point is that the Forbidden City is very much in love with death; it celebrates death. And so revival director Jeremy Sutcliffe rolls out the ceremonial, exotic masked dancers caught in the sensual slow motion of Kate Flatt's choreography, gliding like spectres across the arena of death while the populace roar their approval from the terraces of Sally Jacobs's still striking set. It's deservedly become one of the Royal Opera's most durable successes and, since its premiere in the year of the Los Angeles Olympics, 1984, it has seen many Turandots come and go. The latest of them, Iréne Theorin, succumbed to a cold on opening night (an occupational hazard for an ice princess) and was hurriedly replaced by Elizabeth Connell, currently singing the role of the mother in the new production of Hänsel und Gretel.
Turandot's mother? Well, let's just say that Connell has been around the block a few times. But here she was, stepping up to the plate like a true star, and, I have to say, sounding better than she has in years. In a role that so often falls prey to big-voiced screamers on their way down the slippery slope to oblivion, Connell's way into her taxing entrance aria "In questa reggia" was notable for what one might call "sleight of voice". She used chest and glottal stop colours to explosive effect, the words – and in particular the consonants – lending a steely serrated edge to her imperiousness. It was quite a showing and culminated, in the line "His name is Love", with a truly shining placement of the crucial top note. How rarely one hears it ping like that.
It was a good night, too, for José Cura, well suited to the craggy heroics of Calaf, dark and strong in the middle voice and wholehearted in that aria. And Svetla Vassileva's Liu, generous of voice and well-practised in the floated diminuendo-crescendos that characterise the role, traditionally upstaged everyone, even in death. Conductor Nicola Luisotti had the sweep and swoon and shimmer of a score that makes love and death almost indistinguishable.
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