It is much claimed that Puccini’s final, unfinished (by him) opera contains his best music. And while it offers a first act dominated by atmospheric choral singing, much trademark gloriously soaring orchestra and the tenor aria ‘Nessun Dorma’, it lacks the charm and vitality of the composer’s more performed works. After all, it is an opera that caricatures Chinese people as inscrutably cruel and is based on some childish hokum about a lover solving riddles to win a cold-hearted princess (who will have him executed if he fails). It hardly compares to the intricate characterisation and emotional engagement of ‘La bohème’ or the thrills of ‘Tosca’.
To give credit where it is due, though, Sally Jacobs’s simple but stylish set of wooden terraces, lit from behind, looks great, especially when populated by the red-masked chorus looking down on proceedings. Meanwhile, the story is intermittently injected with life as white-masked dancers perform slow, angular routines. And while the production (a revival of Andrei Serban’s orginal 1984 direction) is full of spectacle, it is, in fact, a rather static piece. This is not helped by Italian tenor Marco Berti as Calaf. The burly helden tenor stomps around, resembling Genghis Khan in a dressing gown, barking out his arias at immense volume but without feeling. He seems miscast in a role that is, after all, a charismatic, wily chancer who inveigles his way into the affections of an imperious psychopath.
Otherwise, the cast is impressive – soprano Eri Nakamura (formerly of the ROH’s Jette Parker young performers’ scheme) gives a splendid turn as slave girl Liù; and bass Raymond Aceto makes a dignified yet broken king as Timur (Liú’s master and father of Calaf). The three ministers of Turandot – Ping, Pang and Pong – add a light touch, albeit dangerously pointing the otherwise serious piece in the direction of ‘The Mikado’. Of these, baritone Dionysios Sourbis shines as the strong yet wistful Ping.
The star of the show, though, is American soprano Lise Lindstrom in the title role, which she will have sung onstage 100 times on September 17. Her powerful dramatic voice cuts like a laser through the dense textures of the large orchestra and chorus. Tall and elegant, she makes a fitting princess.
Meanwhile, in the pit, conductor Henrik Nánási keeps the pace up and proceedings alive, like his life depended on it. Jonathan Lennie
'Turandot' returns to the Royal Opera House in July 2017, with Lise Lindstrom and Christine Goerke sharing the title role, and Dan Ettinger conducting.