Composed in 1921 Turandot saw Puccini revisit his passion for the orient sixteen years after Madame Butterfly. This time he ventured to imperial China for his tale of courtly power and riddles. In order to woo Princess Turandot, suitors must answer three brainteasers correctly with failure resulting in a swift beheading.
Enter Prince Calaf, recently reunited with his father Timur, who decides to win the princess’s hand. Although the composer’s final opera, Turandot is a vigorous piece of work with a wonderful sense of imperial power and grand passion that stands easily alongside his other tragic masterpieces Tosca or Madame Butterfly.
Operatic concerts can be tricky, to mike or not to mike? Some, like Sir Willard White as Timur and Claire Rutter as Turandot have voices that carry to the back of even the largest hall without help. Others like José Ferrero playing Calaf finds himself fighting a losing battle to overcome the massed brass and strings behind him. This is especially unfortunate as Calaf has the most famous aria in opera – Nessun Dorma – to perform, but in fairness he carries this key moment well.
If Ferrero’s singing is consistently muted by the band, Eleanor Dennis as Liù, Timur’s tragic servant, fights on heroically and occasionally wins. When she does, her crystal clear soprano is used to immense emotional effect – especially at her death. Nicholas Lester, Andrew Kennedy and Christopher Turner provide great support as Ping, Pang and Pong the imperial advisors, and Jonathan May in the small role of the Mandarin makes his presence felt with his bass baritone.
Due to technical difficulties the show’s performed without subtitles so those without programmes either have to know the opera well or be content with the music washing over them, it certainly doesn’t seem to hamper anyone’s enjoyment. Whilst far from perfect there is much to savour here and it would take a great deal to prevent anyone enjoying he richness and beauty of Puccini’s heart-rending and passionate score.