On the way to the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff Bay this evening it struck me that it was quite fitting to be going to see Welsh National Opera‘s production of Turandot so soon after Friday’s concert. After all this was Giacomo Puccini‘s last Opera and it was incomplete at the time of the composer’s death in 1924. It’s a work most famous for the rousing tenor aria Nessun Dorma from Act III , which was made even more famous when, sung by the great Pavarotti, it became the theme tune for the Italia 90 World Cup. But there’s also the gorgeous Signore Ascolta in Act I and, even better, the dramatic fulcrum of the Opera, and one of the greatest Puccini’s arias of all, the climactic In Questia Reggia. Puccini undoubtedly had a great gift for writing memorable songs but there’s much more to him than that, as this opera proves. Turandot is a particularly dark and troubling story, with music to match the drama at every stage, and it contains some extremely interesting “modern” ideas alongside the classic showpiece numbers.
The story is set in China (“in legendary times”). Princess Turandot (definitely pronounced “-dot” rather than “-doh”) is a tyrannical ruler who challenges potential suitors to solve three riddles. The penalty for failure is death; no resits allowed. The Opera begins with the Prince of Persia being led to his doom. You know the sort of thing – girl meets boy, boy falls in love with girl, girl beheads boy, etc. Calaf, Prince of the Tartars, arrives with his elderly father Timur and faithful servant Liu. Crazy fool that he is, he decides to have a go at the riddles. Three sinister ministers, Ping Pang and Pong, prepare the trial, letting on as they do so just how many others have died in the attempt to woo Turandot. Calaf, of course, succeeds, but Turandot doesn’t want to go along with her side of the bargain. Calaf sets his own riddle – Turandot simply has to guess his name by dawn and he’ll give up his suit and let Turandot execute him too. She tries everything she can think of to identify the mystery contestant, including keeping the entire population of Peking up all night and torturing Liu to the point where she kills herself rather than risk giving away her master’s name. Liu loves Calaf herself, you see, so naturally she dies for her beloved’s sake. That’s what women do, in Opera. Moved by Liu’s sacrifice, Turandot feels the power of love and agrees to marry Calaf. And they all live happily ever after. Apart from Liu, of course, who’s dead.
That’s one of the thing’s that’s so problematic about this Opera for me. If Calaf is meant to be so noble and courageous, so why does he fall for Turandot who, at least at the beginning, is cruel beyond belief? And if he’s such a good egg why does he let the innocent Liu die just so he can get his leg over? This isn’t the only Puccini opera in which the romance has a dark undertone and in which the hero isn’t all that heroic when you look hard enough at him. Calaf isn’t quite as bad as the ghastly Pinkerton in Madame Butterfly, but I still think he’s basically a prat.
This production is a revival of one first performed in 1994. The setting spans a number of epochs, ancient Chinese costumes mingling with 20th century dress, and the minimal set periodically hung with mugshots of slain suitors evoking the “disappeared” in a South American dictatorship. Turandot’s dress and hairstyle in Act II made her look a lot like a cross between Ymelda Marcos and Eva Peron. In the crowd scenes, the chorus writhe with stylised anguish of an almost masochistic nature, as if their oppression by the brutal regime has become a sort of fetish for them.
Star of the show was dramatic soprano Anna Shafajinskaia as Turandot. With a name like an Icelandic volcano and a voice of exceptional power to match, she sent shivers down my spine on several occasions, especially in Act II. Gwyn Hughes Jones was a fine Calaf. Rebecca Evans being unfortunately indisposed, Liu was played by Michelle Walton. She started very hesitantly, and I wasn’t at all impressed with her rendition of Signore Ascolta; what she sang was quite nice, but it was only a vague approximation to what Puccini wrote. She did settle down as the performance went on, however, and was much more impressive in Act III. The rest of the cast were good and, as always, the Chorus of Welsh National Opera were superb throughout.
It’s difficult to explain to people who don’t “get” Opera how it can possibly work. People don’t actually sing to each other in real life, after all. All I can say is that, when it’s good, you somehow just fall into it and it takes on its own dramatic logic. That doesn’t always happen, of course, but for me it certainly happens sufficiently frequently to make it worthwhile. This one took a while to get going, and I didn’t really start to get involved until Act II, but thereafter I was gripped.
I should also say that it was very nearly a full house. Not bad for a Tuesday night!