Turandot, Royal Opera House, London

Triumph of slave over mistress
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The Independent Culture

Andrei Serban's 1984 staging of Puccini's Turandot (revived now by Jeremy Sutcliffe) was money well spent. Now in its umpteenth revival, it still has the look of a show that knows its worth. From Sally Jacobs' tiered pavilion, the masked chorus watches us watching it, a closed society in love with death. Through the doors of this public arena, the lustful procession advances, vivid silks and shining sabres catching the eternal moonlight.

Andrei Serban's 1984 staging of Puccini's Turandot (revived now by Jeremy Sutcliffe) was money well spent. Now in its umpteenth revival, it still has the look of a show that knows its worth. From Sally Jacobs' tiered pavilion, the masked chorus watches us watching it, a closed society in love with death. Through the doors of this public arena, the lustful procession advances, vivid silks and shining sabres catching the eternal moonlight.

Kate Flatt's original choreography (rehearsed now by Ann Whitley) is still at the heart of the show's identity, its graceful and balletic slow motion belying the underlying barbarism. There's something of the spectator sport about it all. How fitting that it was premiered at the Los Angeles Olympics.

Of all Puccini's heroines - with the notable exception of the Girl of the Golden West - Hollywood might have created the icy princess. Not even Sunset Boulevard's Norma Desmond made such a spectacle of herself. Puccini underscores this with cinematic élan, but when the conducting is as good as it was here under Mark Elder, the subtleties far outweigh the indulgences. Few have reminded me as surely as Elder that this is a 20th-century opera; few have revealed its strange, subversive harmonies as lucidly as he. The sickly-sweet smell of death was everywhere. The orchestra laid it bare most beautifully. But it needed Elder to hear it and to prevent it from becoming glutinous - as it so easily can.

Especially vivid were the extremes of contrast between the score's raw barbarism and its perfumed exoticism. In Act I, the rampaging choruses - terrifically delivered here with edge and rhythm - gave way to an eerie expressionism. The invocation to the rising moon was hypnotic, Puccini's muted chorus shot through with pale woodwind arabesques and glistening harp. It was the conductor's night all right.

And it was the slave-girl Liù's night. Isn't is always? Yes, but more so on this occasion. The Korean-American soprano Hei-Kyung Hong was that little bit more special. Hers is a voice of real quality, fullness and reach, but it's the musical intelligence and commitment behind it that proves so affecting and ultimately enables her to go the extra distance with her phrasing. In the Act I aria "Signore, ascolta", she had the courage and almost the breath to take the tricky high B flat through a seemingly eternal crescendo and diminuendo to somewhere beyond our expectations. It didn't quite come off, but its daring was breathtaking. Come the final act, she did what Liùs so often do - she all but sang Turandot off the stage.

Andrea Gruber began badly. Her entrance aria, "In questa reggia", was initially woolly and ill-focused. There seemed to be no core to the voice, the pitch so wavery as to sound like a negotiation. We don't require and rarely get beauty in this strenuously thankless role, but incisive words and indomitable top notes are de rigueur. It took time for Gruber to give us either. The upper quadrant of the voice had its moments, and she did engage attention in the transformation of Act III. But vocally speaking, she was nowhere near consistent enough.

Nor was Vladimir Galouzine's Calaf. He sounds Russian - that's one problem. The other is that the slightly occluded baritonal quality of his voice only really opens at the very top. And that, too, can be precarious. There are vocal problems here. He came to grief on the exposed top C at the close of the riddle scene (though he should get some credit for attempting it - many don't), and while he certainly went for broke on the victorious money-note of "Nessun dorma", the rest of the aria was frankly sloppy, cavalier with both pitch and note values.

Liù was undoubtedly the scene-stealer even in death, her funeral procession literally passing right in front of the ice princess and her unknown prince at the close. Gone but definitely not forgotten.

To 7 February (020-7304 4000)

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