With its bold dissonances, and heady concoction of Western harmonies suffused with fragrances from the Orient, Puccini's final unfinished opera, Turandot, is firmly grounded in the twentieth century. It's a forward looking work, and all the score's iridescence was superbly teased out by Nicola Luisotti's brilliantly conducted and faultlessly paced account of this endlessly fascinating work at the first night of this revival, the Royal Opera's fifteenth, of Andrei Serban's venerable staging.
I wouldn't weep buckets if I never encountered La Bohème or Tosca in the opera house again, but Turandot is a score that never fails to amaze – colour, orchestration and pacing never falter. It's easy to see why the first night audience in Milan were left baffled in the face of its audacity.
Of course the tragedy is that Puccini died before he had had chance to complete the work, so the final twenty minutes come courtesy of the composer Alfano. The overblown scream-fest that concludes the work fails to do justice to the miracles that Puccini had penned before, and without wishing to sound like a broken record, it's a shame that Berio's much superior ending isn't given an airing.
That gripe aside, this was as engrossing and thrilling a revival of Serban's staging as I've attended. Sally Jacobs' designs still enthral, and given that the production will be thirty this year – it belies its years well, creating both an air of exoticism and violence that are at one with Puccini's score.
Returning as the titular Princess Iréne Theorin combined volume with pliant phrasing, plenty of mezza voce, and did well in almost making her character sympathetic. It was a joy to hear the role so musically sung - whilst certain sopranos are happy to impress with volume alone, Theorin offers a far more subtle reading. Opposite her the Korean tenor Alfred Kim was viscerally thrilling as Calaf, hurling out high notes with apparent ease, and unlike some predecessors in this role, he actually looks the part of the lovelorn prince.
Matthew Rose was an incredibly young-sounding Timur, and it was instructive to hear the role sung with such virility, whilst Ailyn Perez made a sensational role debut as the slave girl Liu. Using her diminutive physique to her advantage, she cut a tragic figure on stage and used her bright and agile soprano voice to telling effect. As is often the case with this role, she was awarded the biggest ovation of the evening.
Grant Doyle (Ping), David Butt Philip (Pang) and Luis Gomes (Pong) were an energetic trio of ministers whilst the opera got off to a rousing start with Ashley Riches' sonorous Mandarin.
With thrilling contributions from the Chorus, and Orchestra, this latest revival of Turandot proves that there's plenty of life in this old dog yet!