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ENO’s Turandot

Published 9 October 2009

These days the word Gooldian is becoming as much a part of theatrical vocabulary as Pinteresque and Brechtian. Making his opera directorial debut with this new production of Puccini’s Turandot, Rupert Goold defines the word as a piece of work that is wildly inventive and mind-bendingly surreal.

Like a Brothers Grimm fairytale, Puccini’s three-act opera tells the story of frozen-hearted Princess Turandot who demands that any suitors for her hand – and amazingly there are many – must solve three riddles in order to win her. If they fail, their head faces the butcher’s block. When new man in town Calaf sets his eyes on the princess, he decides he must take the trial, despite entreaties from everyone around him, including his father and devoted slave-girl Liu, not to put his life in the hands of this evil woman.

Though it may risk the wrath of opera traditionalists to say so, it is a far-fetched, faintly ridiculous story which bears no relation to the modern world. Rather than trying to make it so, Goold has gone the opposite way, plundering the depths of his imagination to turn the story and its characters into a surreal dream. The Imperial City becomes a Las Vegas-style hotel in which the guests seem to be attending a ghoulish fancy dress party, where a nun and a clown sit down to dinner alongside a transvestite and a trio of Elvis impersonators, and where Ping, Pong and Pang, the imperial functionaries, serve as the hotel’s chefs.

Turning reality on its head altogether, Goold portrays the troupe of butchers who come for the head of the latest failed suitor as pigs, chasing the human with knives held aloft in a macabre dance. The inventive imagery extends to Turandot herself who, the first time we see her, is not human but an ice-sculpture, while her handmaidens are a an octet of lithe, pink-haired girls whose jerky movements and false smiles suggest the soullessness of blow-up dolls. 

This gaudy, fantastical scenario is given some context by Goold’s device of installing a silent observer to the action, a writer who sits at the side of the stage scribbling in his notebook, sometimes intervening in the action. He is, I assume, Puccini himself – albeit wearing red Converse – imagining the tale he will come to compose. It is a device which anchors the surrealistic nature of Goold’s production; Puccini is Alice, walking through the Wonderland of his mind. It also gives Goold a way of dealing with the ending of Turandot. Puccini famously died before finishing his opera and the final scene was completed by Franco Alfano. In the third act, played out on a dramatically different set which drew gasps when the curtain lifted, the writer’s own story converges with the opera.

A huge cast – I counted more than 60 on stage – sings the opera with passion, with Amanda Echalaz as the tragic Liu providing the emotional heart of the story. Gwyn Hughes Jones as Calaf sings the famous Nessun Dorma in a comically sinister kitchen, with the chorus off stage. And Kirsten Blanck brings a suitably frosty face to the title role.

However it is the staging itself which demands attention in Goold’s production. It is, unequivocally, a highly stylised creation which, judging by the somewhat shocking reception to the director’s presence on stage at the curtain call, will divide opinion. But perhaps that’s just another part of the definition of Gooldian.



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