Royal Opera House, London - 2013
Henrik Nánási, Andrei Serban, Lise Lindstrom, Marco Berti, Eri Nakamura, Raymond Aceto, Dionysios Sourbis, David Butt Philip, Doug Jones, Alasdair Elliott, Michel de Souza
Opus Arte - Blu-ray
The popularity and longevity of Puccini's most famous works has had the unfortunate consequence of them almost becoming aural wallpaper or operatic elevator music. True, most of the composer's works have little to say about social or political issues, they don't provoke any great depth of philosophical thought, or even consider the human condition other than in the most generic life/death terms. Musically too, Puccini's works don't really have any ambitions to revolutionise the world of opera. While it may seem easy then to categorise and devalue Puccini's calculated contribution to the artform, one shouldn't dismiss the sheer ability of those works to entertain or the composer's great gift for melody and "tunes".
As such, works like La Bohème, Tosca and Madama Butterfly need no special pleading. They are unquestionably true masterpieces that are likely to endure and deservedly remain in the popular repertoire for a long time to come. Puccini's later works - La Fanciulla del West, Il Trittico and Turandot - while by no means underepresented on the stage, don't however leap so immediately to the mind or (with the exception of one or two famous arias) whistle off the lips. They are however works that have most interesting sides to them and a certain amount of intriguing musical development, with more through composition, the use of leitmotifs and some Debussy-like impressionism.
What shouldn't be dismissed in these later works, particularly in the case of Turandot, is that Puccini retains this facility to simply entertain. Entertainment - as evidenced by the fact that it is often prefaced with the word 'cheap' - tends to be regarded as something less desirable in opera than high concepts and virtuoso singing. Puccini's sense of entertainment, and yes, even a sense of humour, is also often overlooked or looked down upon in this way. Gianni Schicchi might be the composer's only out-and-out comedy, but there's a light scattering of humour through many of the composer's works. It's there in Act I and Act II of La Bohème evidently, but even Madama Butterfly has comedy in its culture clashes, and it's there too in Turandot with Ping, Pong and Pang. In Turandot, Life, Death and Love remain the big main operatic subjects, but there's also associated dramatic moments providing poignancy, valour, selflessness and humour - albeit comedy with a darker edge.
Turandot has all the elements then for a grand entertainment, but even so, the fairytale plot is one that doesn't seem best placed to draw out those essential human characteristics. If it's not dealt with effectively, it can be just a mess of Orientalist clichés, with situations calculated specifically to run through the numbers, all built around the showcase aria of 'Nessun dorma'. A cold and cruel Princess, with a series of riddles for suitors who will be executed should they fail, whose heart is melted by a valiant Prince, this is Life, Death and Love writ large with very little in the way of genuine human sentiments. Or so it seems. Liù is of course the saving grace on that front, her sense of honour, duty and love igniting feelings of compassion in the Princess Turandot, and it similarly opens a way to the heart of the audience.
And this, while it seems sentimental and calculated to put it in those terms, is primarily the strength of Puccini. He always finds a way to touch the heart of the listener, and more than just being entertainment, that's the critical element that needs to be in place. If it doesn't obviously provide the necessary heart, Andrei Serban's production for the Royal Opera house (dating back to 1984) at least exploits the entertainment value of Turandot, with all its Oriental exoticism and regal glamour. The set is grand but unfussy, requiring no major set changes just the addition of props - pagodas, masks and banners - between scenes. The background is however surprisingly dark, and doesn't show off the full impact of the set. The costumes are typically bold Serban primary colours, and full use is made of the stage with good blocking of the characters with masked dancers to add life and movement.
While it certainly has all the glamour and high production values that are required to make Turandot an entertaining spectacle, there's nothing here in this production or in the performances however to make you sit up and be willing to explore the qualities that are there in the work and find the warm heart behind it. It all feels a little perfunctory, and it's not just the fairy tale element or the use of masks that make it somewhat inscrutable. Henrik Nánási's musical direction doesn't really manage to bring the score to life either, but it and the staging mainly provide the context for this production and they do that fairly well in the necessary places. 'Nessun dorma', for example, isn't overplayed as a showpiece but kept in its dramatic context. Liù's death is most affecting here, as it must be, and Turdanot's discovery of the name that that has eluded her - not Calaf as much as Love - brings the work to an unquestionably powerful conclusion. The lack of imagination elsewhere however means that it's the singers who have to make up for the dramatic failings, but unfortunately there's not sufficient attention paid there either.
The singing performances themselves are good, but a little more dramatic direction however might have made a real difference. Marco Berti has all the right Italian tenor characteristics that you expect to hear in this role, even if it is clearly a stretch for him in places. More of a failing is his acting ability, and you don't really get a sense of the importance of his task of Calaf being emotionally engaged with the enormity of the riddle challenge and potentially facing death the next morning - it all seems more like an act of bravado than true love. Lise Lindstrom is very capable in an unquestionably tough role, but a little on the strident side. There's plenty of ice but no fire of passion. A little more vulnerability would bring a little humanity to her Princess Turandot, but there's not much sign of it here. Eri Nakamura is a fine Liù, apparently light of voice but there's a robustness here and her top notes ring out beautifully. Raymond Aceto's Timur is solid, with clear enunciation in his deep bass.
The quality of the Blu-ray is, as expected from Opus Arte, of a typically high standard with a clear image and strong audio tracks. The release also includes a 8-minute introduction and a 4-minute Behind the Masks feature on Ping, Pong and Pang. The performance can be played with these features included, or as separate Acts. There's a synopsis in the booklet, which also has a good essay by Linda Fairtile on the creation of Puccini's final opera which remained unfinished at his death. Like most, this version uses the final scene completed by Franco Alfano. The BD is Region-free, with subtitles in English, French, German, Spanish, Italian and Korean.