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Puccini: Turandot

Princess Turandot Kirsten Blanck

Calaf Gwyn Hughes Jones

Liù Amanda Echalaz

Timur James Creswell

Pang Richard Roberts (acts 2 and 3 sung by Gareth Huw John)

Pong Peter Van Hulle (replacing an indisposed Christopher Turner)

Emperor Altoum Stuart Kale

Mandarin Iain Paterson


Conductor Edward Gardner
Director Rupert Goold
Designers Miriam Buether (sets)
Katrina Lindsay (costumes)
Lighting Designer Rick Fisher

Choreographer/Assistant Director Aletta Collins

Assistant Choreographer Shelby Williams
Translation William Radice

ENO at The Coliseum, London - first night 8 October 2009

The good news first. Musically, this was a fine performance of Giacomo Puccin's last, unfinished opera, based on the 1762 commedia dell’arte play by Carlo Gozzi and set in Peking in legendary times.


The real stars tonight were Gwyn Hughes Jones, a robust and full voiced Calaf and Amanda Echalaz [pictured] as the poor Liù, by turns winsome and then defiant in the face of death and this production (she drank bleach from a plastic bottle). Kirsten Blanck as the ice maiden, Princess Turandot, was perfect in her smaller - in terms of stage time - female role; cold, ugly in demeanor, yet enchanted at the end. From the ovation Amanda Echalaz received at the end it was obvious that the audience thought Liu to be the real star!


Poor Ping, Pang and Pong suffered from illness; Christopher Turner, having succumbed to a chest infection, had his place taken splendidly by Peter Van Hulle. Richard Roberts, suffering from the same complaint, did well in Act 1 but he couldn’t sing the rest of the work so Pang was sung, very well, by Gareth Huw John from the side of the stage. The orchestra, under ENO’s music director Edward Gardner, was generally excellent, making the most of the score, but, as is usual, failing to rescue the occasional piece of bad writing – there are a few miscalculations in this score. Had Puccini lived to complete the work he would, surely, have tightened the structure. Chorus master Martin Merry trained his singers well and they sounded good, but looked ludicrous dressed as everything from a Bobby soxer, to a Nun, a Rabbi and heaven only knows - or cares - what else...


In this travesty of a production by Rupert Goold and associates, Act 1 is played in a Chinese restaurant reminiscent, in looks only, of the opening scene of Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom (1984). The first scene of Act 2 saw Ping, Pang and Pong working as waiters in a Chinese restaurant, throwing all the rubbish out, in black plastic bags, at the rear of the eaterie; you can see this kind of thing every day behind the restaurants in Charing Cross Road. Scene 2 was played on Act 1's set but now it was supposed to be the Royal Palace... Act 3 [pictured] seemed to be set in a cross between a kitchen from hell – four headless bodies are hung upside down – and Ducky Mallard’s Autopsy chamber from the TV series NCIS.


But these aren’t the only strange things on view tonight. Sitting at a table in the restaurant is Elvis, wearing a spangly silver outfit. Added to this, there were two old men who may have been Chelsea Pensioners, or perhaps 18th century German Beadles. Later these characters were joined by a second and third Elvis, respledant in blue and green spangly suits, someone who looked like Queen Elizabeth II, Pat Nixon, a transvestite in a gold lamé hot pants suit, two golfers, one of whom seemed to be Jack Niklaus and, in the third act, several young women dressed to resemble Paris Hilton/Peaches Geldorf/the woman in the plastic tube from the 1979 Buggles video for Video Killed the Radio Star, not to mention a woman who appeared to be Gabrielle Drake as Lt Gay Ellis from Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s TV Sci-Fi show UFO (1970). If this isn’t enough, there was a character called The Writer who, in the first two acts spent time at a table, stage left, sometimes joining in the action and sometimes seeming to chronicle the action as it unfolded. In Act 3, at the moment when Turandot’s ice maiden persona is melted by the Calif, she slashes the writer across the stomach and he spends the final ten minutes, or so, of the opera, throughout the love music and the final chorus, dying from his wounds, finally climbing onto the hob/torture bed at the end. If this all sounds crazy you would be right. And when the production crew took the stage at the end for a bow there were audible jeers from the auditorium. To be honest, I am astonished that there wasn’t more complaint.

Just to add to all this confusion, the programme book gave the correct settings for each scene! * Why bother with a production that so blatantly ignores the original conception? The one part of an opera which a modern production team cannot touch, and over which it has no control (yet?) is Holy Writ: the score. Goold's production will look terrific when it’s broadcast on BBC Radio 3...


Bob Briggs

* Musical Pointers has noted that expensive opera programmes (which most people won't read until on the way home) often offer little help about the production in view; a statement of the director's intentions - and hopefully its justification - would be helpful.

For Turandot on DVD see our reviews of the film at the Forbidden City of Beijing (Mehta) and Pountney's lavish production at Salzburg, not to forget Alexa Woolf's appreciation of Christopher Alden's brilliant and economical updating for Welsh National Opera 2000. PGW