Review: Turandot, Royal Opera House

Puccini’s last opera is a strange affair, but Rasika Sittamparam finds a great deal to enjoy at the ROH’s latest production

An unfinished work poses problems whenever it comes to be interpreted: it is impossible to know what the piece would have looked like had Puccini lived to complete it. Turandot was also of particular importance to Puccini himself: it was his defiant response to the criticism of musicologist Fausto Torrefranca in his 1912 work Giacomo Puccini e l’ opera internazionale, who railed against all things Puccini, calling into question his entire art.

But Puccini had his friends, and once he had joined the choirs of angels, it was up to pianist and composer Franco Alfano to finish it. The Puccini-Alfano score was in turn imperiously edited by conductor Arturo Toscanini, who introduced numerous cuts of some of Alfano’s more glaring infelicities. But despite rewrites and countless interpretations, there remains the feeling that all those who have attempted to do the work some final justice – from Alfano and Toscanini, to original director Andrei Serban and Andrew Sinclair, the director at this summer’s version at the Royal Opera House – are faced with a nearly insoluble problem.

But what’s it about? It’s the story of the merciless Pekingese princess, Turandot, noted for her epic haughtiness, and turbulent love life. In Puccini-land, love simply has to conquer all – and that goes even for his bloodthirsty female lead. But this time, love must fight for a hold in someone strongly inclined to murder her subjects.

Christine Goerke’s portrayal of the eponymous anti-heroine, as she floats in on a chariot at the culmination of the first act with a murderous frown, is truly terrifying – a woman you’d think, who might not be falling in love any time soon. With a gestural swish of her silk robe, she orders the execution of the suitor who can’t solve her three riddles – this is the hapless Prince of Persia, a mere child.

And yet, Calaf – at this point in the story known to all as the Unknown Prince – despite witnessing the execution, takes on the challenge of falling in love with this brutal dominatrix. One doesn’t know whether to admire his boldness, or feel alarmed at his folly. The character is majestically played by Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko: captivated, he sings of her beauty. Almost without realising, love has entered his being, and he can no longer be fully enraged by Turandot’s cruelty.

From there, we follow Calaf’s descent into a hellish state. He is warned off his love by pretty much everyone in the company – the so-called ‘Ministers of Execution’ – Ping, Pang and Pong – his own ageing father Timur, as well as Calaf’s demure slave girl Liu (a standout performance by Russian soprano, Hibla Gerzmava). As any hero should, Calaf passes Turandot’s test, meaning that Turandot should now submit to his will; but, again in true hero mode, Calaf decides not to.

Aleksandrs Antonenko as Calaf (The Unknown Prince)

Instead, he gives her until dawn to discover his name: if Turandot succeeds in this wager, with classic opera ludicrousness, Calaf volunteers the gloomy result of his own death. Given the high stakes, Turandot takes the wager seriously, and proceeds to terrorise her sleeping kingdom, desperate to know his name.

Night falls, and then – after ominous chanting from the chorus – we hear the famous aria,Nessun dorma’. Antonenko sang this with arresting vigour: it was full of love for his delightful murderess.

By this point in the story, Turandot knows about the slave girl Liu’s connection with Calaf, and orders her to be tortured to find out the Unknown Prince’s name. Gerzmava’s Liu resists, and then reveals her secret love for the prince with the aria ‘Tu, che di gel sei cinta’, and in the process produced the finest singing of the night. At the song’s end, Liu ran a sword around her neck, and fell to her death on a pagoda-resembling platform.

Hibla Gerzmava as Liu

After Liu’s death, her hearse poignantly glides along the stage, and now we are into pure Alfano territory. Turandot’s eventual submission to Calaf’s embrace cannot quite elicit any fuzzy warmth; disbelief over Liu’s death and Calaf’s apparent nonchalance about it, lingers on.

The opera finishes with Turandot’s proud declaration of love, but it doesn’t feel like the ending Puccini would have wanted. Turandot and Calaf’s romance seems rushed: the viewer is left with the impression that Alfano couldn’t quite do justice to what Puccini had so nearly finished. Despite the cast’s stellar performance, one is left wondering if the ending should have had more oomph. The truth is this opera still awaits its completion – and indeed, perhaps it will wait forever.

Rasika Sittamparam is a writer and researcher at Spear’s

Turandot runs at the Royal Opera House until 16 July 2017

Photography by Tristram Kenton