Puccini's final opera is a testing showpiece for chorus and orchestra, but Edward Gardner's ENO forces are equal to it. The house musicians are on tremendous form these days, especially when Gardner himself takes the helm, and their reading is world class. The orchestra sings, the chorus thrills; every nuance is beautifully judged. Close your eyes and you're in musical heaven.
Open them again and you have Rupert Goold to contend with. In seeking to stake his claim as an opera director he has chosen to impose a radical director's concept on Turandot, albeit one in which he has little confidence, it would seem, and one that doesn't work for a single second.
We are no longer in ancient China but in a modern Chinese restaurant with, apparently, human bushmeat on the menu. There's something dodgy in the prawn crackers too because, in a tacked-on silent role, a ‘writer' (Scott Handy) peoples the room with the products of his imagination and courts indigestion by hatching the tale of Turandot over dinner. This feeble distancing device is a creative cop-out by Goold, who abdicates responsibility for his own ideas by pretending that they have been generated by the creative juices of a superfluous new character.
It probably looked clever on paper. The Ice Princess's silent appearance in Act One is rendered by an ice sculpture; Calaf's three riddles are in the fortune cookies the writer unwraps over his dessert; Liu's torture takes place in the restaurant kitchen (lots of sharps in a kitchen) where human carcasses hang on the meat rack. What's missing is any shred of artistic justification for such indulgences. Puccini's tale may be hokum, but it has dramatic power and emotional integrity too, and it's these qualities that have secured its place at opera's top table. Goold presumes too much when he treats this majestic score as a canvas for doodling on.
All the soloists struggle against Goold's tide of flotsam. The Emperor (Stuart Kale) is a passing wino; Timur, the exiled king (James Cresswell), is a blind punter dining out with his insecure minder, Liù (Amanda Echalaz), while Timur's son Calaf (Gwyn Hughes Jones), is a businessman in a drab raincoat. Turandot herself, lent an imperious chill by Kirsten Blanck, is merely the icing on the cake.
The wonder is that all these singers manage to sustain high levels of musical excellence, whatever the mortification du jour that Goold imposes. Echalaz in particular sings magnificently, raising high expectations for her forthcoming ENO Tosca. Hughes Jones and Blanck, whose roles are surely the heart and soul of this opera, manage to impress despite floundering in an under-directed vacuum at the centre of a production that is more preoccupied with peripheral frippery than emotional truth.