Turandot, Royal Albert Hall, London

The princess and the paupers
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The Independent Culture

The chisinau National Opera – not exactly the centre of the operatic universe. Unless, of course, you are Ellen Kent and Opera International, whose mission, it seems, is to put it there. Puccini's Turandot is the latest of its offerings to do the rounds of the UK. Well, not exactly the rounds, since this is strictly "full-frontal" as opposed to "arena" opera. Not that there appeared to be too much distinction in the minds of the audience who packed the Royal Albert Hall. Perhaps they were expecting a Raymond Gubbay special. In which case, the production values will have left them feeling cheated, and the quality of the voices, pleasantly surprised.

Except in one respect. The man in front of me bemoaned the lack of impact. The voices sounded "distant", he said; they needed "more amplification". In fact there was no amplification, as far as I could make out, and the voices will have sounded distant only to those whose sole experience of live music was through the reverberating purple haze of sound-enhancement. How sad. We live in times when a Russell Watson can be passed off as the world's "fourth tenor" because of what the sound-engineers can do for him. What would the man in front make of him unplugged?

In fact, the Chisinau National Opera boasted a really rather good tenor in Akhmed Agadi. He may have shirked (wisely, I suspect) the optional high C in the Riddle Scene but the voice had a lovely oakish colour throughout the range and where one might have anticipated the "Verona" school of delivery (long and loud) he gave us sensitive, well-nuanced phrases. Not too many of those from Baysa Dashnyam (Turandot). But she hurled out the top Bs and Cs with impunity and there's not a whole lot more you can ask of the ice princess, opera's most spectacularly thankless role.

Liu usually walks off with the show anyway. Rosa Lee Thomas only didn't on this occasion because her seraphic ascents into the stratosphere weren't quite effortless enough to melt the heart. For the rest, the casting of Ping, Pang and Pong made me nostalgic for the bad old days when these roles were arbitrarily farmed out to second-tier principals more often than not approaching, or just past, their sell-by dates. Ditto the old Emperor, though someone should have told Vasile Cheptenari that the pantomime season promises to be early, but not this early.

Which brings me to the "spectacular traditional production" (that's the publicity speaking, not me). Well, the "distancing" the man in front complained of certainly lent enchantment. "Top designer" Alex-ander Okun opted for the Chu Chin Chow look. But then ancient China always did appear different when viewed from Romania.

There was little evidence of a director at work (Eugen Platon was credited), not least in the mass comings and goings of a laughably attired chorus – though the arrival of the Herald at the opening in white tie and tails hinted at a statement about the westernisation of the east which one must assume Mr Platon then realised did not conform to the notion of a "traditional production" and subsequently discarded.

Footnote: I'm not quite sure what Puccini would have made of the spurious tam-tam strokes which prefaced each act, but he would undoubtedly have taken his hat off to the heroic efforts of the two percussion players doing the work of at least four in the interests of economy. I guess they'd economised all they could elsewhere.

Touring to Brighton, Sunderland and Hull until 30 Nov. Details on www.ellenkent.com

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