Antonio Pappano may have come late to the Turandot party, but boy has he arrived in style. The Royal Opera’s outgoing music director has made a whole career in Italian opera, but has waited until now to conduct his first ever Turandot. That his first live performance of Puccini’s last opera should accompany Andrei Serban’s venerable staging is one of those alchemical moments – a meeting of worlds.
In ancient China, Princess Turandot’s body-count is rising. Suitors must answer three riddles or face execution. But when Prince Calaf triumphs, he sets Turandot – sworn enemy to all men – a riddle of his own: discover his name by dawn and he will die rather than claim her.
Premiered in 1984, Serban’s production is quite literally from another century, featuring a gorgeous jangle of ceiling-to-floor streamers, oversized masks and an army of dancers and extra chorus by the yard. Its emperors descend from the sky on gilded thrones, princesses float in among a cloud of handmaidens.
All this old-fashioned sumptuousness collides with the brutal, ritual violence of the score in Pappano’s hands. Plucked violins spatter us in blood, brass marches threaten to crush us underfoot, tuned percussion rattles like a box of bones. Even the beauty (and there’s lots of that too) is unnerving – gilded horror, a silky modesty-screen of strings drawn between us and unthinkable acts behind. It’s shiver-down-the-spine stuff, but whether that’s thrill or revulsion is deliciously uncertain.
The production coincides with the release of Pappano’s studio recording of the opera with Jonas Kaufmann and Sondra Radvanovsky. On paper this live cast is a notch less starry, but in the theatre it’s a compelling ensemble. Yonghoon Lee is a handsome hero, voice on the tighter side, refusing to bloom fully in “Nessun dorma”, but more than a match for Anna Pirzzoi’s steel-and-chiffon Turandot: imperious and damaged in Jack Furness’s keen revival direction.
Hansung Yoo, Michael Gibson and Aled Hall are a shape-shifting unit as city officials Ping, Pang and Pong, beautifully choreographed as one by Kate Flatt, whose tai chi-inspired movements give the production its menacing control. But it’s South African soprano Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha who gives the production its heart – fragile but staunchly determined as slave-girl Liu, silvery-timid in Act I’s “Signore ascolta” but finding new depth and warmth before her death.
Deeply, unfashionably, unapologetically splendid, this Turandot is a parting gift from another era – an outlier at a time of sober understatement and pared-back seriousness. See it. Once it’s gone, we’ll never see the like again.