This release has lots to recommend it. The sets and costumes go for that retro-future look found in movies like "Metropolis", "Brazil", or "City of Lost Children". The inhabitants of these worlds share one more thing in common: they live under despotic rule. Their condition both physical and political, just like the character of Turandot, undergoes a radical change during the course of the opera. Act I looks the most like Jules Verne's vision of the future, a stunning act II boasts simply spectacular sets, while the last act is more subdued, more human. Whatever you think of the concept there can be no arguing the fact that everything looks like no expense was spared - too often radical productions of standard repertory look so cheap.
Of great significance is that this is the first Turandot released that has Luciano Berio's completion of the work Puccini left unfinished. I had to watch it a couple of times to get used to it. As Gabriele Schnaut states in an interview that is part of the DVD extras, this new finale is unabashedly Berio's, not pseudo-Puccini, and it works. With Alfano's ending there can be no doubt that you've just heard a fairy tale. Berio brings this fantasy world closer to our own, and rather than the "happily ever after" we get that uneasy, exciting sensation brought about by hope, love being its instigator. I'm not saying it's better or worse than Alfano's - it's there and now audiences have a choice.
I enjoyed the direction, in particular the movements by and around Turandot. The Turandot-Liu exchange I found the most revealing, with a nice touch added at the point Liu commits suicide (if that's what you call what happens here), when Turandot literally becomes Liu through the removal of her regal coat. The action around Liu's body (which remains on stage until almost the very end of the opera) might be the only aspect of the production that could be accused of being eurotrashy. Schnaut is the best in the acting department, with vivid and expressive facial expressions. Hers is a large, dependable voice, not perfect, not beautiful. Have we ever had an ideal Turandot? I found her no less convincing vocally or physically than the other most tolerable choice on video, Eva Marton. Botha's good acting moments seem to happen by accident, though he's competent enough and sings very well, occasionally overpowered by the orchestra. For those who care about these things: he does sing the optional high C towards the end of Act II, and it's good one. I was very sad with Cristina Gallardo-Domas' performance. She seems not to have shed Lius from other productions with stereotypical Victor Book of Opera "I'm Chinese" poses when in this whole affair no one is pretending to have any close affinity to the Far East other than what the text "inconveniently" makes them say. So maybe this is the director's fault, not so her singing: wobbly, unsteady and thin, no hint of that sweetness and beauty you could hear just a few years ago. I really hope she was just having a bad night. Paata Burchuladze, looking considerably slimmer than last time I saw him, does a great job with his small role. The three masks, wearing complicated costumes, are also more than adequate. This is not an opera where the conducting is going to unveil some deeply insightful revelations: it's a big show, and Gergiev conducts expertly with full, even, lush sounds from his orchestra, no controversial tempos or outbursts.
Every now and then there are moments when you wish you had a wider angle of vision because you know things are happening on stage you cannot see. Other than that the video direction is generally good, not the usual Brian Large smell-the-sweat, see-the-nose-hairs close-ups of most of his Met videos. The sound is excellent. Both the Italian and Spanish subtitles are screwed up and anything with an accent mark comes out as a different symbol.
Nothing wrong with liking the Zeffirelli circus from the Met (I do), Mehta's Beijing extravaganza, or San Francisco's airplane ladder (the other DVD choices). But if you want something a bit less traditional yet thoughtful and professionally executed, you will enjoy this performance. There's also the added bonus of a valiant modern attempt to complete what Puccini left unfinished.