Back to the Opera House, Covent Garden... but not for ballet! Only three months after seeing Puccini's MADAMA BUTTERFLY on that marvellous stage, we were back to see the maestro's final opera TURANDOT, yes... the one with *that* aria.
As soon as Giacomo Puccini committed to writing the opera in early 1920, he raced ahead of his librettists Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni and by December, when they delivered their first draft, the composer was drumming his fingers, eager to fit the music he had written into the plot line. But the opera's birth was a protracted affair, with characters being re-written and the plot streamlined but in 1924 the opera looked completed.
However the ending of the story proved problematic and Puccini remained unhappy with the plot and his contribution to it, but his own final act was fast approaching; he was diagnosed in October with throat cancer and, unaware of the full extent of his illness, he died in pain one month later. With TURANDOT still not completed, the task was given to composer Franco Alfano but the first attempt was rejected as too wide of what Puccini would have wanted and a shorter version was finally accepted.
However at the very first production at La Scala in 1926, the composer Toscanini stopped after the onstage death of the character Liu and addressed the audience that this was the last music composed by Puccini as the curtain fell. However the subsequent performances included the Alfano ending and that is how the opera is performed.
TURANDOT made it's London debut the following year at Covent Garden and has played regularly ever since; the current production was first seen in Los Angeles in 1984 when the Royal Opera appeared at the Cultural Olympiad and we saw the 277th production of it! Again I think it's remarkable - and somewhat alarming - how long productions stay in both the opera and ballet repertoires at Covent Garden. I guess it shows how much new productions cost to stage...
That said, Andrei Serban's production (revived here by Andrew Sinclair) is wonderfully vivid and moves like a train through the simple plot: Calaf, the disguised Prince of Tartary is reunited with his deposed father King Timur who has only his slave girl Liu to look after him, needless to say Liu has always loved the Prince from afar. They are reunited in Peking which is ruled by the beautiful Princess Turandot who has set a heavy price on any man who would marry her.
Like the Sphynx, the icy Turandot asks the men three impenetrable riddles and are summarily executed in public should they get the questions wrong; the Princess has sworn she will revenge the rape and murder of an earlier Princess in her dynasty on all men who would dare ask her to marry. Needless to say Calaf falls immediately in love with Turandot and accepts the riddle challenge. Amazingly he answers the riddles correctly and amid the crowd's jubilation, notices that Turandot remains unmoved. He offers her a deal: if she can discover his real identity by dawn he will allow himself to be executed...
The story's bloodthirsty theme is playfully evoked by the set being littered and over-hung with large wooden heads showing all the men executed for failing the challenge, the bloody gore represented by long, trailing red ribbons. The design by Sally Jacobs was a marvellous mix of the simple and the extravagant: the set was a curved two-storey wall which allowed the chorus to stand and watch the plot unravel, with occasional huge set-pieces like a dragon-festooned knife-grinder for the Executioner to ride around on, a pagoda for Calaf to rest during the long night before his possible-execution and a golden throne for the Emperor of Peking to descend from the heavens.
The Opera House orchestra sounded wonderful, making Puccini's ravishing music sweep you along in it's wake, the climax being - as it should be - the third act opener 'Nessun Dorma'. It was marvellous to hear it in it's proper setting, presaged by a darkened stage being illuminated from behind the wall by light from the palace and large lanterns bobbing around Calaf's pagoda. I didn't think I would be moved by the aria but I was, understanding it's place in the story-telling made it all the more special and it was excellently sung by Roberto Alagna as Calaf. The odd thing being that it is so much a part of the story-telling that Calaf is interrupted as soon as he finishes belting out his final 'Vinceró'by three other characters... the urge to clap had to wait until the finale when the Nessun Dorma theme is reprised.
Lise Lindstrom was in imperious form as the icy Turandot but the biggest cheers were reserved for Aleksandra Kurzak as the tragic Liu, her two arias were beautifully sung and she gave her character a real personality which cannot be said for the others thanks to the basic shallowness of the libretto. I also liked the trio of ministers Ping Pang and Pong who were well sung by Leon Kosavic, Samuel Sakker and David Junghoon Kim.
it's an odd opera, the rushed happy ending (for everyone but Liu and Timur) is not quite believable but Puccini's majestic and thrilling Chinese-influenced score is marvellous and the story, while thin, powers along. Added to this, a production that is witty and spectacular and you have a real treat. Now... let's find another Puccini...