John Berry, artistic director of ENO has promised to "take a fresh look at core classics" and unwraps Multi-award winning theater director Rupert Goold's alternative take on the composer's last opera. While scandalizing some and earning mixed reviews, this production, for all its whimsy, has much to say.
The chorus has morphed into the diners in the popular restaurant. It might have been Halloween night; Elvis impersonators, a preening socialite, a NYPD cop, a rabbi, a nun, a cross-dressing Liza Minnelli and a golf pro are just part of the crowd. Ping, Pang and Pong are menacing chefs, wielding their chopping knives. Danger is also behind the swinging doors to the kitchen, where the earlier suitor to Turandot was executed with a splash of blood on the window. When the "ice princess" makes her appearance in the First Act, an ice sculpture is wheeled through those doors instead.
A little girl in a wedding dress sitting on the sculpture's cart. She appears often as the innocent lost soul of Turandot. Another character not in the script is the silent figure who could be the composer. As the play unfolds he watches and takes notes. In the last act, as the chorus leaves the stage after pleading for mercy one of them pulls the notebook from his hands and throws it down. Puccini died before finishing the opera and it is at this moment the music of composer Franco Alfano begins. After a few moments a dancer with a pig snout takes the book and starts to scribble. Poor Alfano's banal music has likely never been similarly critiqued from the stage.
The first scene in Act II has Ping, Pang and Pong on a fire escape outside the restaurant, taking their smoking break and reminiscing about their homes in the country. The third act moves to the kitchen, dominated by a huge stove in the center. On the walls are the heads of the previous suitors and the blackened bodies of the last few are hanging upside down like so much Peking Duck. It does serve to highlight the rather pathological mind of the princess who finally appears wearing a wedding dress but still looking like a fearsome warrior.
The music director of the ENO, Edward Gardner, led an inspired orchestra and chorus with uncommon musical thrust. The music is delivered regally for those Puccini purists who kept their eyes closed to avoiding the dramatics on stage. Powerhouse German soprano Kirsten Blanck struggled only slightly with the high-flying role of Turandot and Gwyn Hughes Jones was a reliable and at times touching Calaf. The rest of the cast was impressive, particularly Amanda Echalaz as Liu and James Creswell as Timur. If you can get beyond tradition, this staging offers colorful stage pictures and often illuminates the opera's complex, often frustrating message. The packed house the second night, October 18, seemed to be having a grand time.
The English National Opera has fourteen performances of Turandot through December 12. At the same time two classic productions are returning: Jonathan Miller production of Verdi's Rigoletto and David McVicar's chilling staging of Benjamin Britten's Turn of the Screw with the inimitable Charles Mackerras in the pit.
The season program is online, with videos and musical samples, at www.eno.org/operaguide.
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All photos by Catherine Ashmore.