Sunday, 22 November 2009
People of the Peking Diner
They told me Rupert Goold's new ENO Turandot was going to be set in a Chinese restaurant; I laughed. I saw the trailer; it looked as if it might work. I went to the show last night; I haven't experienced a more brilliant piece of totally reinvented music theatre since Richard Jones's production of Wozzeck. Sets by Miriam Buether, costumes by Katrina Lindsay, video art and design from Lorna Heavey and Rick Fisher's lighting all go towards creating the total visual experience. All production photos here are by Catherine Ashmore.
Like Jones, Goold takes cues from the text, in this case about violent appetites, doll-women and total sadism, and creates a whole world from them. Puccini's and Gozzi's China is a never-never one reinvented by western fantasies; the anything-catered-for Chinatown dining experience is a good equivalent. Entourages come from all over the world to face the riddles, so why not gather all sorts of masqueraders and religions in the restaurant? Puccini's theme-park of stylistic references finds its equivalent here. And the cruelty is slightly picture book, too, so why not make it bloody but entertaining and strip-cartoonish along the lines of Tarantino's Kill Bill!?
In any case, whether or not you like Goold's solutions - and for me, everything worked - you have to concede the tightness and discipline of the theatrical vision. What a joy, after the aimless mooching Zambello allows her cast in The Tsarina's Slippers, to see every chorus member an individual, every dancer a tight and bizarre executant of wacky routines (by Aletta Collins).
Musically, the reason for mounting Turandot without all the resources it ideally needs is the stupendous lead Ed Gardner gives the ENO Orchestra and Chorus. This is another high watermark for them to set alongside their Peter Grimes. The number of top Cs in the soprano line is awesome; the orchestra catches the watercolour beauties as well as the extended lurid splendour of the score. Gardner relishes the slow torture of the Prince of Persia
as well as the lovely little garden-reverie indulged in by Ping, Pang and Pong as they sit on the back stairs of the restaurant, watched by the writer who seems to be creating Turandot as he goes along (an emblematically detailed performance by top-notch actor Scott Handy).
The Act Three atmospherics have never sounded eerier, piccolo and harmonics going hand in glove with the horrifying kitchen of our Peking Diner.
Calaf sets the flames on the big cooker going and delivers 'None shall sleep'. Clearly Goold wasn't going to get more than the odd hand gesture from Gwyn Hughes Jones, but the tenor does rise to the vocal challenge. Earlier, his bottled top and invisible low notes made us wonder if a Nanki-Poo hadn't strayed into boots several sizes too big for him. It's a serviceable performance, as is Kirsten Blanck's in the insane role of the ice princess (here poignantly abetted by a little-girl alter ego who skips around to the 'moo lee wah' children's chorus). Blanck's high notes may be blowsy but they're never shot like several of the Turandots we've been watching in the class. She acts decisively and brings energy to the final duet
where Alfano's cumbersome orchestration is matched by a pig-headed kitchen creature taking over the sensitive writer's notebook. Goold's solution to the ending Puccini never got round to finishing is much better than Tony Palmer's in that absurd Scottish Opera production twisted around Puccini, his wife Elvira and their ill-fated maid Doria Manfredi.
Liu here is the superb Amanda Echalaz, a dangerous voice on the cusp of blowing apart, but stylish and always dramatically motivated. She and Goold give a different but plausible take on whatever 'Signore, ascolta!' is in this vivid if not always well-fitting translation. The torture scene is momentarily shocking, but think about it: Puccini's sadistic stagecraft knows no bounds here. It was both a masterstroke and a stumbling block for the happy ending to sacrifice Liu in this way (Busoni's Turandot is so much easier to celebrate because, apart from the unfortunate offstage prince in the first scene, no-one dies).
The suicide is not pretty, nor is it meant to be. Yet this grimness is offset by the bizarre jokes that abound elsewhere. A colourfully-dressed old wino is taken up by the writer to play the Emperor; a clown fanfares the beginning of the trial on a toy trumpet. The mechanical maids-in-waiting, dancers with amazing legs, do a brilliant job of acting out Turandot's violated state, collapsing in pairs as the latest man gets the riddles right. The end is appropriately colourful, however queasy. Like Laurent Pelly's Glyndebourne production of Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel, Goold's Turandot manages to say some thought-provoking things about our pick-and-mix, casually violent society without labouring the point a la Alden or Bieito. If you're just out for the voices, you might be forgiven for giving it a miss. But if you care about living theatre and great conducting, you have to see it.