Audiences at English National Opera are being encouraged to file an online review of the performance they attend. A notice above the proscenium advertises the website (www.eno.org/eno_interactive). Judging by the company’s latest production of Turandot, there must be a similar sign above the stage door: this one reads “write your own script”. Dramatic licence has a fine tradition at ENO but, in Turandot, West End darling Rupert Goold (Enron, Oliver!) has followed the instruction to the letter. Just as Puccini took Gozzi’s drama as the starting point for a romantic fantasy about China, Goold takes Puccini’s opera as the starting point for a theatre director’s fantasy about …
Opera? Sadism? Chinese restaurants? Maybe ENO’s interactive website will provide the answer, because Goold’s Turandot throws up even more riddles than Puccini’s ice princess. Unlike the opera, which involves various beheadings and a suicide, the only life to be sacrificed in Goold’s scenario (apart from his own as an opera director) is that of a mute Writer who inhabits the stage from start to finish, scripting every twist of the drama until he gets slashed by Turandot and expires in his own blood. Presumably Goold wants to allude to Puccini’s creative crisis after Liù’s suicide, a crisis he could only resolve by his own death – leaving the opera unfinished. Goold can’t quite get round that one – the Alfano completion is used – but he peppers the action with a child-fairy who picks up the script from the expiring scribe and runs, giving his creation a life beyond his control.
If that seems far-fetched or irrelevant to Turandot, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Goold’s Orient, designed by Miriam Buether and Katrina Lindsay, is the Imperial Palace restaurant, whose colours, characters and kitchen smells are whipped up by the Writer (Scott Handy) into a plot even more unlikely than Puccini’s. The knife-wielding chefs mutate into the three Masks, who get together at the start of Act Two for a smoke on the fire escape. The dining clientele – a Sgt Pepper-style assortment of colourful English archetypes – become the people of Peking. And the kitchen turns into a human abattoir where the carcasses of Turandot’s victims are hung and fried. There is more: the fan-waving mannequins, the pigs’ heads, the chopsticks and Chinese calligraphy. Goold sucks all the psychology out of the piece and throws in everything but the kitchen sink. The dish he proposes is an eyeful of exotica; what we are really being served is a dog.
The evening is saved by the music. Turandot and Calaf may get the solo spots but ENO hands the lead roles to its chorus and orchestra, both in outstanding form under the company’s talismanic music director Edward Gardner, who reveals the sophisticated chiaroscuro and perfumed atmosphere of Puccini’s score to a degree I’ve never heard before. Kirsten Blanck is a remarkably sympathetic princess, holding the stage enigmatically and singing in juicy, voluptuous tones. Gwyn Hughes Jones’ Calaf struggles manfully to find a place in Goold’s scenario, and sculpts “Nessun Dorma” with taste. For opera fans, the real scene-stealer is Amanda Echalaz’s Liù, a vibrant performer with a lyric soprano that fills and flatters the vocal line – leaving us hungry for her ENO Tosca later this season. That should prove a welcome palette-cleanser after this distinctly whiffy Turandot.