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Turandot

Giacomo Puccini
English National Opera
London Coliseum
(2009)

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If my fancy is to be trusted, two simultaneous performances of Puccini's last work Turandot are staged at the Coliseum this week. One is the powerful score, brilliantly revived for us by English National Opera musical director Edward Gardner, with the splendid orchestra and chorus all on top form; the second is an audacious restaging of the work by distinguished theatre director Rupert Goold, making his debut on the London opera stage.

The second, at least, is not possible without the first, although it has to be said there will be those whose feelings are such that they will prefer to have seen it in more traditional garb.

Traditionalist though I may be, I cannot agree. For this production is one of the most exciting I have seen on the European stage, from St Petersburg and Bregenz to Berlin and London.

I am not sure about Goold's introduction of the character of The Writer, if only because the opera gains nothing by it. He seats himself at a table front stage, performs one or two tasks normally done by someone else and finally is despatched by the princess of the title, with the ease of one who regularly does this sort of thing.

Yet I applaud the wit of a director who can translate action from the familiar Gilbertian Peking to a smart Chinese restaurant brilliantly created by Miriam Buether.

Fearsome kitchen workers emerge with cleavers akimbo and it is remarkable that the 50-strong chorus do not quail at the sight. They, interestingly, include every icon from Elvis to the Chelsea pensioner and, presumably Marilyn Monroe too. They are attired as though from every smart charity shop in town!

James Creswell is an excellent Timur, the exiled king, with the depth of ENO's resources illustrated by the casting of the rising star Iain Paterson in the small role of Mandarin.

Memorable is the ENO debut of the young South African soprano Amanda Echalaz as the slave girl Liu. Her delicate plea, "My lord hear me" is a thrilling promise of things to come.

Tenor Gwyn Hughes Jones, of course, has the aria to die for - None shall sleep tonight. And it was made famous by tenors long before Pavarotti took it to the European Cup; my own preference being the Swede Jussi Björling, delight of Two-way Family Favourites.

Yet that great piece is still far off and is at the heart of Turandot's Act 3 command as she demands the secret of the stranger's name.

Here indeed is the emotional climax of the whole work, "Thou who with ice art girdled" sensitively sung by the ill-fated Liu.

In the title role, German soprano Kirsten Blanck who, remarkably, has moved from coloratura to dramatic roles, has all the weight and tone required, albeit many of her vowels are indistinct. She enjoys her finest moment in the devil's kitchen scene amid hanging corpses reminiscent of a sinister Hansel and Gretel finale.

As the man in the interval bar said of my "two performances" theory: "Just shut your eyes and listen!" He had a point.

"Turandot" is staged at the Coliseum on Sunday 18th (3 pm), Wednesday 21st, Saturday 31st October and on Thursday 5th, Wednesday 11th, Friday 13th, Saturday 21st, Thursday 26th, and Thursday 3rd November. Saturday 5th, Wednesday 9th and Saturday 12th December

Reviewer: Kevin Catchpole