The Royal Opera has chosen Andrei Serban's venerable staging of Turandot, Puccini's unfinished final opera, to open the 2013-14 season and although this production is almost thirty years' old, Monday's opening night was as exciting a theatrical experience as when I saw this staging for the first time in 1988. Back then, of course, it was only on its second or third revival, but given that this is its fifteenth, Serban's staging has aged remarkably well.
Sally Jacobs' designs and costumes brilliantly evoke the Orient, without ever descending into twee Chinoiserie, indeed both she and Serban emphasise the brutality that lies at the heart of this Court. Ping, Pang and Pong are usually portrayed as light-hearted characters, but here they are implicit in the murderous exploits of Turandot and take great glee in torturing the slave girl Liu in the final act. Serban never lets us forget that Turandot and Calaf's love comes at a price – Liu's life, and having her body brought back on at the final curtain, as the crowd rejoice in the union of Turandot and Calaf, reminds us of this and leaves a bitter-sweet taste in the mouth.
The ending is, of course, the weakest part of the opera as Puccini never lived to complete it, so it was left to his assistant Alfano to pull together an ending based on the sketches that the composer left on his death. It really does jar as Turandot, as far as I'm concerned, is by far Puccini's most fascinating and modern work – its feet are planted firmly in the twentieth century as not only is it jam-packed with glorious harmonies and dissonances but the oriental inflections underpin the iridescence of the score. If only The Royal Opera would let us hear Berio's ending which is far superior and makes much more thematic and dramatic sense.
Nevertheless, conductor Henrik Nánási drew all these colours out to astonishing effect, and secured wonderfully assured playing from the orchestra. At times the performance could have done with a bit more cut and thrust, and coordination between pit and stage faltered now and again, but Nánási supported his singers well and encouraged the orchestra to ‘breathe' with them.
All the principals were new to their roles at Covent Garden. Eri Nakamura made a welcome return to the House and melted all hearts with her gloriously lyrical Liu, floating numerous high notes with consummate ease and cutting a diminutive and tragic figure on stage. As Calaf, Marco Berti was stentorian of voice and sang most of the role at a relentless forte, but did at least attempt some mezza voce here and there, and he managed to deliver a tasteful account of ‘Nessun dorma'.
Most impressive of all was American soprano Lise Lindstrom who has sung the title role in nearly all of the major opera houses across the world, and it's not hard to see why. Elegant and slim, she looks eminently believable as the icy-princess and possesses a voice like a laser beam. At the start of ‘In questa reggia' she really rattled the rafters, and once past some bumpy phrasing went on to give a performance that was dramatically alert and musically outstanding. As she melted in Calaf's arms, so did her tone – it was a joy to hear a soprano capable of hushed pianissimos, and to hear the role actually sung, rather than screamed.
All the supporting roles were well taken – Michel de Souza got the evening off to a rousing start as a rock-solid Mandarin whilst Dionysios Sourbis (Ping), David Butt Philip (Pang) and Doug Jones (Pong) were a mellifluous and athletic trio of ministers.
A great start to the season, and if you can't catch it at The Royal Opera House, the performance on 17 September is being beamed live to cinema screens across the world.