A rich passion

October 9, 2009

To the opera yesterday for he opening night of the ENO’s new production of Turandot. Now if you go to the ENO you can expect an innovative and often controversial production. Sometimes these work well, sometimes they are a little over the top, but they are always interesting. I never understand why people are surprised by this, but there is a nasty cabal of retrogressive opera goers to turn up on the first night and boo the designers when they come onto stage; two ROH Ring Cycles have been damaged by these luddites. To be fair I have seen some nonsense, a WNO production of Don Juan where the chorus were in silver suits on stools wearing costumes of multiple flashing lights, not to mention the anti-hero who spent all his time washing red socks on stage symbolically at every moment of betrayal I have also seen some wonderful material, The ENO’s Macbeth with Lady M suspended on a bed on the wall, a ROH production of Parsifal situated in London during the Blitz, Richard Jones Ring, situated variously in a charnel house and a psychiatric hospital from the soviet era.

Opera is the ultimate art form, combining music, drama, poetry and literature in one glorious appeal to both the intellect and the emotion, its symbols need to mutate and develop in context. It is not a static art, requiring faithful reproduction of the first performances with their limited compass of technology and design. Truly great opera (which really means post Verdi) transcends generations acquiring new meaning in new contexts. Maybe similar in a way, the adoption by the Welsh of the Hebrew Slaves Chorus from Nabuccio is one example. May be different – the ENO are currently reviving the famous Miller production of Rigolleto which takes the triangle of father-daughter-seducer with its sub-text of power and a jesters tragedy, into the New York of maffioso gangs around a century ago.

Turadot is richly textured and well known opera with a powerful and dramatic story line, it has the capacity to carry a comparable staging. It is also Puccini’s last opera and one that he didn’t finish. In musical terms it was revolutionary, introducing the modern, acting as an endpoint or capstone for traditional italian opera. He also uses the chorus as am orchestral instrument, something that Wagner initiated and is common in modern opera. There are debates as the reasons for his failing to complete, some relate to illness, some to the difficulty of reconciling the modern, some to the fact that once Liu had died, the emotion was over. Of course Liu is the maid who committed suicide to protect his reputation, Turandot is his wife, or rather the archetype thereof. Its a profoundly autobiographical opera I saw one performance in the mid 70’s by Scottish Opera where the compose wrote in a glass study on the stage while the events of the opera took place in the stage around, his imagination.

Here we had a similar concept, with the writer a non-speaking/singing part who observes and provokes. A hint of the cynical journalist here, the writer introduces characters, strikes the gong to commit Calaf to the challenge and eagerly hands over the instruments to torture in the events that lead to Lui’s suicide. Overall the production is a metaphor for duty and love in a modern environment. Each member of the cast is a different archetype (or rather iconic figure), a nun, a chelsea pensioner, a clown, a priest, a rabbi, margaret thatcher, characters from soap operas. The whole set is a restaurant which the 3Ps a chefs intent on expediency. Some wonderfully statuesque ballerinas orchestrate each entrance of Turandot. The critics will probably know it for the murderous company of knife welding pigs, but that works. A child represents the Princess whose abduction lead to the obscene challenge. the first Prince to be executed is naked, stripped of dignity. At the end Turandot’s commitment to love coincides with her slicing open the writers stomach, who then slowly dies as the love aria reaches its height.

Now the amazing thing is that, for me at least, all of this works. The execution is immaculate. We could have done with a better conductor, Turandot sand english with a german accent and disappointed. (Why the ENO persists with English I don’t know, especially as they now have surtitles). Gwyn Hughes Jones is more than competent but not brilliant, I think he lacks the raw power for Calaf. The Emperor makes the most of one of the famous character acts in opera. However Amada Echalaz as Liu steals the show. I first heard her in The Minotaur and was impressed then. Here she physically and vocally embodies self-sacrifce. Here performance during once of the most realistic portrayals of torture on the operatic stage cannot be faulted.

Ignore the philistines, ignore the luddites, its worth the experience ….

Tonight to Tristan, of which more tomorrow

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