OPERA / On the dot: Welsh National Opera's Turandot pulls no punches, says Edward Seckerson

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A cold, violet light plays on a wall of corrugated iron. It's almost entirely covered with photographs: the faces of young men; dissidents; the 'disappeared'.

The 'human rights' Turandot? You can feel a few hearts sink. Whatever happened to that exotic fable, dressed by Cecil Beaton to look like Aladdin? And then Puccini's orchestra flings down the gauntlet and with the clash of those opening chords comes the clash of ancient and modern to animate the stage: a thronging crowd elegantly cloned in the fashion of the 1920s and, passing slowly through their midst, Timur and the slave girl Liu, like an ivory-white detail from some venerable Chinese scroll-painting.

Christopher Alden has brought his own cultural revolution to WNO's new Turandot. Central to his conception is the belief that in some subliminal way Puccini was mirroring the events of his time, that the despotic ice-princess Turandot was in fact a powerful female manifestation of Mussolini. Sexual revolution with a vengeance. So, enter Mary Jane Johnson, tightly buttoned into a severely tailored suit, hair swept back Eva Peron-style; and enter her 'dissident' suitor, the 'unknown prince' Calaf, a chauvinistic, long- haired, great-coated revolutionary. Two selfish individuals deadlocked in a powerful clash of sexual identity. Only love (or is it really just lust?) shall be the catalyst for fulfilment and change.

The focus of Alden's characteristically poetic, even balletic staging is very sure. He isolates his protagonists to great effect, particularly in Act 3, where Turandot, Liu, and Timur (but no chorus) are still, silent presences during 'Nessun dorma' and the final confrontation unfolds with icy clarity on an empty stage.

The designer Paul Steinberg's corrugated enclosure is good for claustrophobia, more bunker than walled city, the oppressive symbol of a society in love with death. In Act 1, the Prince of Persia yields ecstatically to the knife as the svelte, fur-swathed figure of Turandot glides by in a wash of ultraviolet light. But Alden never wears his 'concept' too earnestly. It's still a fairy tale; only spiked with colours of ultra-modernity.

Crowd-control is a big factor in this show. As is the sheer visceral excitement of the Welsh National Opera Chorus coming right at you in anger and affirmation. Ensemble was terrific under Carlo Rizzi, the WNO music director. Detail and iridescence from the pit made such a change from mere sledgehammer rhetoric. All the principals offered good value. But Patricia Racette's wonderful Liu gave more: the sacrificial lamb, perhaps, but physically, vocally a prime mover in the production: phrasing, sustaining on the crest of the emotion.

Edmund Barham's creditable Calaf will be better (though not perhaps his fearless top Cs), and so, I trust, will Mary Jane Johnson (the Riddle Scene is not the place for a memory lapse). She's a strong, intelligent performer with the requisite uplift for loud and high notes. But the tone curdles distressingly at lower dynamics where the line is at its most seductive. Right now, the vibrato rules her, not she it. One last quibble: I hoped that Alden might find a stronger (or more ambiguous) theatrical solution to the love-changes-everything ending. I was wrong. Otherwise, compelling.

Until 22 April at the New Theatre, Cardiff, (0222 464666); then tours

(Photograph omitted)

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