Turandot English National Opera London Coliseum

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The Independent Online
The curtain rises in silent anticipation of music. The faces of young men stare out at us from dozens of photographs mounted on a wall of corrugated steel. A cold, ultraviolet light plays upon the scene. Time was when Puccini's Turandot was dressed by Cecil Beaton to look like Chu Chin Chow. An audible murmur of surprise and apprehension from the audience suggests that a few of them remember it well.

But no sooner has the initial surprise registered than a shaggy, greatcoated figure rushes in to confront the memory of other fools who've rushed in before him. Others who dared to challenge, to court the despotic Princess Turandot. Suitors. Dissidents. The "disappeared". But before even die- hard traditionalists can start thinking, "Please, no, not the human rights Turandot", Puccini has flung down his opening gambit, and with the clash of those familiar chords comes the clash of ancient and modern. Our Unknown Prince, Calaf looks like he's been spirited in from Puccini's - Mussolini's - Italy, but sharing his space is a Mandarin who might just have stepped from some venerable Chinese scroll-painting. The thronging populace is elegantly cloned in Western chic of the 1920s, albeit with a Chinese flavour. But pushing through their midst are Timur and the slave-girl Liu, like figurines from the Ming dynasty.

Producer Christopher Alden's cultural revolution is to place Turandot in the context of Puccini's time (its heroine, a kind of female Il Duce). But then comes the twist. His is a modern fairy tale haunted by its past. A metaphor for relationships? Perhaps. Turandot is an erotic fable, a sado-masochistic love story. At its heart is a fatal attraction - two obsessive individuals drawn together, and yet kept apart, by their own selfishness. There's an exciting contradiction: these people are in love with pain, with death.

It's there in the ravishment of Puccini's score, it's there in Alden's balletic staging. The Prince of Persia yields ecstatically to the executioner's knife as the svelte figure of Turandot glides coolly by in a wash of ultraviolet. This isn't the kiss of death, it's the caress. Liu wears the red of torment and suffering beneath her sacrificial white. The fateful kiss between the ice-princess and her unknown prince is brutal. Love (or is it lust?) quite literally overthrows her.

Since Alden's production was first seen in Cardiff, he has radically re-thought that ending. It's much stronger now. As Turandot publicly rejoices in her discovery of the stranger's name, there is an unsettling ambiguity, a coldness, in the physical distance she still keeps from him. And so, Prince and Princess formally take to their respective thrones and are quickly lost in the crowd as it moves downstage bearing the photographs of those who did not, it seems, die in vain. Are we celebrating love fulfilled or the demise of a dictatorship? Or both? All that was missing for me was the original Alfano ending. I had rather hoped that ENO's first Turandot might give the capital its first staging of it.

Admittedly, that would have put intolerable strain on a Turandot already pushed to the limit. Sophia Larson has all the notes, but it's a stretch, and because it's a stretch, there is no beauty in the sound, no repose, no piano. It's like she's perpetually singing through clenched teeth. Add a thick Austrian accent, and the only enigma in this Riddle Scene is whether the language is English or Mandarin. Her Calaf, Edmund Barham, is really coming on - still a little stiff of phrase and body, but good value (even if he did shun the top C in his moment of triumph). And there's a truly international Liu from Janice Watson, whose affecting way with Puccini's rapt ascents stole everybody's thunder. Except David Atherton's. With extra brass weighing in thrillingly from the royal box, his first Turandot was a big, bold, thumping success. Has ENO offered him the music directorship?

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