Review: Turandot, Welsh National Opera at the Birmingham Hippodrome

After the excellent opening night at Opera Holland Park it was off to Birmingham with a sense of relief that this evening's Turandot was inside (as the weather had turned unseasonal).

Photo by Brian Tarr
For me this was an evening of two halves - Musically excellent, the show was framed by production which veered between dazzling insights and infuriating glosses. A typical Christopher Alden production then. And it is noteworthy that this production is seventeen years old yet bears striking similarities to his recent productions. Admirable consistency or limited range? I leave readers to draw their own conclusions.

My heart sank in the opening scene as were treated to all the usual Alden tics - Automated chorus movements, wall clinging, anguished scratching, principals singing intimate or confidential lines across the width of the stage at each other and framed in a set which evoked a warehouse. Much play was made of a gallery of large black and white photographs on the walls - Clearly meant to portray Turandot's victims they were visually striking although more evocative of a set of Mapplethorpe portraits than a collection of deceased princes.

However the production gains striking focus with the entrance of Ping, Pang and Pong. Here Alden is at his most assured and focused. Radically departing from the standard portrayal he creates a totally convincing and human alternative. Their reactions and interactions are constantly stimulating and often revelatory especially in the third act. Their scene opening Act 2, often dull and perfunctory before the thrills of the Riddle scene, here becomes, for me, the highlight of the production. Alden (and revival director, Caroline Chaney) were aided by an extremely strong trio of performers led by David Stout's superb Ping.

Alden’s other major thread is his idea that Liu and Timur are merely vestigial memories in the mind of Calaf. This idea doesn’t really hold water once we reach Act 3 as both characters interact with the other principals. However the extension of Liu’s death till one beat before “Alzati,vecchio! È morta!” felt triumphantly right. The moment of recognition and the sense of the transfer of Calaf’s fate from one to the other was deeply moving.

Photo by Brian Tarr
Again Alden’s treatment of Turandot is deeply unusual but much of it feels truthful. Her costumes, however, often seem to work against her. In Act 2 she is dressed and coiffed as a typical “power woman” - Possibly Eva Peron although one friend posited (rather less flatteringly) Sybil Fawlty! In Act 3 she seems to have borrowed a costume from an old production of Norma along with a flowing set of tresses.

Alden doesn’t seem to have much to say about Calaf and unfortunately this impression is underlined by Gwyn Hughes Jones dramatically inert performance. Admittedly Hughs Jones is far more suited dramatically to this role than his recent ENO Rodolfo but I have seen many tenors make much more of Puccini’s admittedly sketchy character. I wasn’t taken either with Alden’s decision to make both Timur and Altoum dribbling dotards - It’s a reductive view and lessens the impact of both characters. Both, for some unknown reason, were costumed as superannuated Lohengrins.

Musically this was a very strong evening. Lothar Koenig proved once again, after his “Meistersinger” triumph, his mastery of huge and challenging scores. He gave full weight to Puccini’s massive orchestral textures without ever overwhelming the singers. The chorus was on coruscating form - This is the second time within a year that the WNO chorus have reduced me to tears - The first time was their Meistersinger “Wach auf” and this time it was the final triumphant chorus to “L’amor”.

Anna Shafajinskaia was a formidable Turandot who grew from a confident, if rather unvaried, “In questa reggia” through a superb Riddle Scene to a sharply etched and deeply moving final act. In the huge moments, for example just before “No, no Principessa”, she didn’t quite cut through the chorus and orchestra in the way Gwyneth Jones used to but it is still a mightily impressive instrument at full throttle. She is less happy in the quiet moments - “Il primo pianti” started unsteadily.

I have already commented of Gwyn Hughs Jones’ dramatic performance. Vocally he is pretty impressive despite a slight nasal quality creeping in at the top of the voice. He was not helped vocally by Alden who placed him way upstage for the sustained top C “Ti voglio tutta ardente d'amor!” and stranded him in a chair for most of “Nessun dorma” although paradoxically the chair-bound section worked better dramatically than the downstage coda where Hughs Jones was reduced to standard tenorial semaphoring.
For me the truly treasurable performance was Rebecca Evans’ gorgeous Liu. Evan’s voice is now sounding closer to Butterfly in spinto heft than Mimi but she nevertheless produced gorgeous pianissimo at the climax of “Signor, ascolta” and “Tu che di gel sei cinta” and her performance was totally convincing and utterly heartbreaking.

Carlo Malinverno and Paul Gyton as Timur and Altoum did what they could with the unhelpful characterisations thrust upon them. Both sang well although I prefer a slightly more massive bass sound for Timur than Malinverno can currently muster.
To sum up a mainly excellent evening of music allied to a production which thrilled and frustrated in fairly equal measure.