Let’s be clear about one thing from the start: amphitheatre in this context doesn’t mean performance in the nearly-round. It means a semi-permanent columned set on a conventional stage which designer Will Bowen has ornamented with terracotta warriors to indicate that Turandot takes place in a China of the very distant past.
Galina Bernaz sings the title role. She radiates the ice of the princess, notably with the first part of “In questa reggia”, but is less successful with the fire melting ice into love with the other side of the character. It’s a strong voice, but one without a lot of colour. Liu is, of course, a far more sympathetic character and Irina Vinogradova produces a softness in“Signore, ascolta!” to which is added great firmness for “Tanto amore segreto” and “Tu che di gel sei cinta”.
Of the men, Valeriu Cojocaru made something more of his lament after Liu’s suicide than at his first appearance; it’s a well-focused bass voice. The trio of court ministers is led by Vladimir Dragos as an authoritative Ping. Stafan Donos dodders though not always suitably as the old emperor Altoum. Tenor Irakli Grigali is of the con belto school and not consistently comfortable either vocally or histrionically as Calaf.
Ellen Kent’s production has a lot going on to fill the stage – dance and mime (had Kali’s representatives stayed on in Peking after Prince Sagarika’s demise?), arm- and head-waving crowds, an extra execution – but the principals tend to stand in the front and gesticulate. Ping, Pang (Anatol Arcea) and Pong (Vasile Micusa) bounce and bob as caricatures rather than as high officials. Their commedia dell’arte roots in Gozzi’s original drama are made too obvious – this may be legendary Peking but it’s not Widow Twankey’s laundry.
The conductor is Gheorghe Stanciu, not always in control of the orchestra and chorus of the Chisinau National Opera and its string section in particular. Alexander Okun’s costumes vary from the overly spectacular (Turandot’s mantle for the riddle scene has to be detached before she can begin to sing) to the ludicrous, with the girl dancers in particular dressed more suitably for the Kingdom of the Shades scene in La Bayadère.
Jonathan Burton’s surtitles are crisp and as little distracting as such aids can ever be. It is only fair to say that the audience at Cambridge’s Corn Exchange applauded enthusiastically at the end and obviously enjoyed what seemed to be, for many, a first taste of opera.