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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Life, Death and Love, but not enough Heart, 1 April 2014
This review is from: Puccini: Turandot [Cast, Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Henrik Nanasi, Andrei Serban] [Blu-ray] [2014] (Blu-ray)
While masterpieces like La Bohème, Tosca and Madama Butterfly need no special pleading, Puccini's contribution to the opera as pure entertainment is one that is often undervalued, and his compositional gifts consequently are often underestimated. Turandot, for example, with its fairytale plot, has all the elements for a grand entertainment but doesn't seem to offer much of human interest. If it's not dealt with effectively, it can be just a mess of Orientalist clichés, with situations calculated specifically to run through the numbers, all built around the showcase aria of 'Nessun dorma'. A cold and cruel Princess, with a series of riddles for suitors who will be executed should they fail, whose heart is melted by a valiant Prince, this is Life, Death and Love writ large with very little in the way of genuine human sentiments. Or so it seems. Liù is of course the saving grace on that front, her sense of honour, duty and love igniting feelings of compassion in the Princess Turandot, and it similarly opens a way to the heart of the audience.

And this, while it seems sentimental and calculated to put it in those terms, is primarily the strength of Puccini. He always finds a way to touch the heart of the listener, and more than just being entertainment, that's the critical element that needs to be in place. If it doesn't obviously provide the necessary heart, Andrei Serban's production for the Royal Opera house (dating back to 1984) at least exploits the entertainment value of Turandot, with all its Oriental exoticism and regal glamour. The set is grand but unfussy, requiring no major set changes just the addition of props - pagodas, masks and banners - between scenes. The background is however surprisingly dark, and doesn't show off the full impact of the set. The costumes are typically bold Serban primary colours, and full use is made of the stage with good blocking of the characters with masked dancers to add life and movement.

There's nothing here in this production or in the performances however to make you sit up and be willing to explore the qualities that are there in the work and find the warm heart behind it. It all feels a little perfunctory, and it's not just the fairy tale element or the use of masks that make it somewhat inscrutable. Henrik Nánási's musical direction doesn't really manage to bring the score to life either, but it and the staging mainly provide the context for this production and they do that fairly well in the necessary places. 'Nessun dorma', for example, isn't overplayed as a showpiece but kept in its dramatic context. Liù's death is most affecting here, as it must be, and Turdanot's discovery of the name that that has eluded her - not Calaf as much as Love - brings the work to an unquestionably powerful conclusion. The lack of imagination elsewhere however means that it's the singers who have to make up for the dramatic failings.

The singing performances themselves are good, but a little more dramatic direction however might have made a real difference. Marco Berti has all the right Italian tenor characteristics that you expect to hear in this role, even if it is clearly a stretch for him in places. More of a failing is his acting ability, and you don't really get a sense of the importance of his task of Calaf being emotionally engaged with the enormity of the riddle challenge and potentially facing death the next morning - it all seems more like an act of bravado than true love. Lise Lindstrom is very capable in an unquestionably tough role, but is a little on the strident side. There's plenty of ice but no fire of passion. A little more vulnerability would bring a little humanity to her Princess Turandot. Eri Nakamura is a fine Liù, apparently light of voice but there's a robustness here and her top notes ring out beautifully. Raymond Aceto's Timur is solid, with clear enunciation in his deep bass.

The quality of the Blu-ray is, as expected from Opus Arte, of a typically high standard with a clear image and strong audio tracks go. The release also includes a 8-minute introduction and a 4-minute Behind the Masks feature on Ping, Pong and Pang. The performance can be played with these features included, or as separate Acts. There's a synopsis in the booklet, which also has a good essay by Linda Fairtile on the creation of Puccini's final opera which remained unfinished at his death. Like most, this version uses the final scene completed by Franco Alfano. The BD is Region-free, with subtitles in English, French, German, Spanish, Italian and Korean.
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