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.


Will said...

JUST the sort of thing that would be booed off the stage in New York City. Well at the MET--I was struck by the New York City Opera audience's acceptance of the new Christopher Alden Don Giovanni.

The Liu suicide IS a big stumbling block. It makes Calaf seem incredibly cold--a male equivalent of Turandot almost--as he forgets her completely to complete the seduction/subjugation of Turandot almost literally over Liu's dead body..

David said...

Let's start again, answering your last point:

Hence Goold’s idea to have a subhuman pig take over the story at that point from the sensitive writer.

Palmer's idea was to end with the death of Liu, tack on the Act 1 finale (in the same key - all those flats). Curtain. Interval. Final duet in concert version.

Just heard the original Alfano end again with Barstow - it's better than the Toscanini-adapted version but still the scoring is goddam awful.

And Berio is no solution either. You have to have the big reprise of 'nessun dorma' at the end - that's explicitly what Puccini intended

As for being booed off the stage at the Met, I guess no-one complains about Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk or From the House of the Dead being done radically because they are that already.

Talking of kitchen carnage, how was the Jones Hansel received? I see you now have models on it in a Vanity Fair spread. Bloody brilliant, especially on the all-star DVD.

Will said...

Reaction was decidedly mixed. It was a case--as with the booing of Luc Bondy's Tosca this season--of a beloved, romantic setting of a favorite opera being replaced by a production that explored the darker subcurrents of the story. Many reviewers made a point of being befuddled by the imagery, and perplexed that it didn't seem the sugarplum offering they felt suitable for children during the holidays. One reviewer was honest enough, however, to let on that the children in the audience seemed to be getting into the spirit if the thing very well indeed and were having a great time.

A big coterie of New York opera lovers got up in arms over the casting of Rosalind Plowright as Gertrude, some of that being in retaliation for the complaints of British critics when Americans are cast in England. In truth, however, the lady was not in very good voice. Philip Langridge, on the other hand, was lavishly praised and applauded as the witch--with which he seemed to be having the time of his life.

My sense is that as with the Robert Wilson Lohengrin, booed and decried the first season and cheered to the rafters its next time out of the gate, that it's going to wind up being a great favorite before its run this year is complete.

David said...

Thanks for that precis, Will: you're talking about when it first opened, I guess? And about a new run that hasn't opened/you haven't seen this time round?

That old chestnut about effing Brits baffles us here. Occasionally you get a swipe in the papers - which La Cieca duly reports - but, believe me, it's nothing compared to the American venom and vitriol against the many British singers/directors employed there, springing from I know not where. That was the chief reason I gave up contributing to Parterre - trying reason was like banging one's head against a brick wall.

Will said...

Yes, I was referring to the reaction at the time the production premiered. We are to have the first revival this season and I suspect there will be a much better reception, or at least a more balanced consideration of what it is and what it sets out to do.

The anti-British prejudice here probably dates back to the Joan Ingpen era at the MET. Rightly or wrongly, she is credited (blamed) for inventing the fine year in advance casting of roles, and for dropping any body into a part no matter how good or mediocre or how much in crisis vocally that body was by the time the performance occurred. It is currently believed that casting packages are being offered by agents that force companies to accept three or four lesser artists to be hired if the great artist (Keenleyside, for example) is to be made available. It is through this device, that many insist we are being flooded by no-talent, small-voiced U.K. singers. Conspiracy theories are beloved in some circles.

The U.S. is also seen as "suffering" from too many U.K. citizens running American companies and conducting here. Stewart Robertson, who has done some fine work at Glimmerglass and elsewhere, is vilified regularly, for example. And it was widely reported here, accurately or not, that Beverly Sills was treated very badly in the British press when she sang at Covent Garden, including comments speculating on how much her husband had to pay to purchase her debut (the fact that Dame Joan supported and admired Sills notwithstanding). I do have personal memories of reviews of recordings featuring Americans being dismissed out of hand by British critics if there was a recording by a U.K. or Commonwealth artist already in the catalog. One that comes to mind immediately is Anna Moffo's recording of Lucia that was specifically called "useless" in a British music journal specifically because the first Sutherland recording had already been released.

On the other hand, Susan Chilcott got an enthusiastic reception when she debuted in A Midsummer Night's Dream at the MET (she was lovely in every way) and was sincerely mourned when her death shortly afterward was announced. It's true that Graham Vick, of the infamous Trovatore, would probably be run out of town if he should ever show his face in New York again, but Simon Keenleyside and Felicity Palmer are admired and Colin Graham's legacy deeply revered. We're not ALL chauvinistic Yanks! I should also state that as the grandson (on my mother's side) of an English woman and a Welsh man out of Liverpool, I have a rather different slant on all this.

While I certainly don't know every opera house in the world, I suspect that most if not all have a coterie (coven?) of self-anointed arbiters pontificating on what should be presented, how it should be presented, which singers should be hired, how they should be conducted and costumed, etc. from a presumption of knowledge, taste and expertise obviously greater than that of any professional in any area of the field. The New York branch makes up a great deal of the Parterre constituency. I've even seen them deploy themselves around the MET, each member standing in front of a sound-reflective surface, screaming boos non-stop at director and design teams of contemporary-style productions during the curtain calls, then gleefully reporting the next morning that "the audience" booed loudly.

Thanks for the conversation, which I enjoy a great deal.

David said...

Likewise, Will: this is exactly what I was hoping for when I asked for 'comments, please': a dialogue, rather than people sounding off from their own viewpoints/prejudices/very occasionally superior knowledge.

You have clarified beautifully what puzzled me about Parterre. I still read it, and I think La Cieca writes well, but talk about bees in bonnets! Actually I was driven away by daring to say what a fine singer Christopher Purves is. The recent Glyndebourne Falstaff rather vindicated that.

On the other hand, I'd be the first to say we're not all good. We have the ridiculously overrated Bostridge and the now not much better Padmore, who could do some things (like the Evangelist) beautifully, but pushed too much. We do have a cathedral-tenor problem and not enough teaching of solid technique.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this review - without it I probably wouldn't have seen the production, which I thoroughly enjoyed and seems to me to be exactly the kind of thing ENO should be doing - brave, theatrical, clever but accessible and moving. It reminded me of the Pountney days, when I first started going to opera. A pity it took such a hammering in some of the reviews. It wasn't perfect (neither was Pountney), but compared to the last revival at Covent Garden it was as if someone had turned on the lights.

Sorry about the anonymity - my google account with its amusing nom de plume doesn't seem to be working. Or maybe I've got the name wrong like Turandot. Nope, "Love" didn't work either.

PS. Good call on Christopher Purves! An amazing Falstaff. Was he really the Um Bongo man?

David said...

What a relief - an older friend went on this recommendation and still hated it. But I told him he had to respect the discipline of the theatrical vision...

If you can't do the google thing you can always sign up with any name you want (even amor) under 'name URL'). But I don't mind 'anon' if it's not abusive - just intrigued to know who such an eloquent writer might be...

What's 'Um bongo'? 'Chris' Purves, as he then was, sang in Harvey and the Wallbangers. I have them on Rattle's old 'Jazz Album'

Of course Americans would say it's all a conspiracy to promote 'fucking Brits'. Lucy Crowe, or her defender, is the latest victim on a certain site (they hadn't heard her; we have, and she's wonderful). Their racism/inferiority complex on a certain site is rather shocking.