Recently, I saw a performance of Turandot - Puccini’s final opera - at the Royal Opera House. It was very enjoyable, but left me with some interesting thoughts.

Let me start by saying that I think it was a good production, albeit marred by missed opportunities.

Most obviously, the gong. I’m sure there was a good reason why Calef only pretended to strike it. However, as a piece of theatre, those few seconds were jarringly unconvincing.

I want to talk more substantively about the direction, however.

It seems to me the the greatest Directors are capable of completely subverting or twisting a work whilst changing not a word or note.

For some works, this is very necessary. It is a sad fact that most of the great operas were composed centuries ago. A not insubstantial fraction are strongly imbued with cultural mores that, if played straight, can be quite grim and unpleasant today.

My worst experience of this was a production of Kiss Me, Kate, where I follow-spotted most of the performances. It is a deeply misogynistic piece that treats The Taming of the Shrew as an instruction manual. The Director appeared not to have noticed this, and, as a crew, we were generally quite sick of it by the end of the run.

But I’ve also seen some sublime examples of the art. The recent production of Don Giovanni at the ENO had the eponymous villain switch places with Leporello at the last moment to avoid getting dragged down to Hell. The opera ended as it began - with Don Giovanni entertaining a series of women (and a man) - having told a very different story to the one originally intended.

Or from the director I most enjoyed working with, who radically reframed Iolanthe and The Sorceror. His staging yielded plots somewhat more believable than those W.S. Gilbert intended, but with changes to neither music nor words.

How then does this relate to Turandot? I think there are three main areas of interest:

  1. Racism/orientalism - much like The Mikado, Turandot is at a high risk of sliding into caricature and stereotype. This production seem to lean quite heavily on implied symbolism, with masks and dancers. It didn’t feel problematic to me. However, I cannot express my thoughts on this point in a concrete fashion, which suggests my understanding has not matured.
  2. Calef as self-centred prick - this is a ‘hero’ whose only thoughts are of himself, his glory and his desires/lusts. He dismisses the pleas of his old, blind father. Near the end, the slave girl lays down his life for him (and his arrogance), and does not appear emotionally affected in the slightest. And it was here that this performance really shone, showing that it was aware of this. Two particularly neat touches: Calef yanking away his father’s stick to use it to strike the gong announcing his suit; at the end, Calef’s moment of triumph, his father pulls the slave girl’s body past, clearly abandoned and alone (Calef pays them no heed).
  3. Finally, it is never entirely clear whether Calef loves Turandot, or the power, glory and fame her capture would grant. He speak multiple times of ‘victory’, ‘glory’, and the conquest of Turandot (and her body) - the title of this post is drawn from one such utterance. Calef woos by conquest, with no attention paid to such things as consent or bodily autonomy. And whilst it’s really Pucinni’s fault, it seemed like an opportunity to do something interesting (or even just take note) was missed. The manner in which this aspect was performed may not have looked out of place at the time the opera premiered. And that’s a great shame.