Review by Raphael Kohn
What do you do when you have an incredibly scored opera that has one of the most problematic stories and libretti to have ever been written? The answer, according to Ellandar Productions and The Opera Makers, is to entirely reinvent it for 2023, hacking off large chunks of the runtime and rethinking the narrative to confront head-on the racist, sexist tropes inherent in the writing. And by and large, this is quite the success.
Originally scored for a huge pit orchestra and usually performed in the largest opera houses on the planet, Turandot is a monster of an opera with its soaring melodies and a tremendously dramatic story, which tells the story of Prince Calaf as he attempts to woo the titular princess who sets him three riddles which he must answer correctly – or face death. So – a light-hearted, family-friendly comedy this is not – a dramatic and tense opera this is.
Entrenched in the original’s writing, however, is a plethora of racist and sexist stereotypes. The original, with its orientalist view of East Asian characters and culture, not to mention its naming of characters, and traditionally cast with white performers wearing yellowface is unsurprisingly less than agreeable to a modern, progressive 2023 audience. And so, Ellandar Productions and The Opera Makers have gone about tearing Turandot up and carefully reconsidering each aspect of the text to fundamentally rethink what Turandot means to a modern opera audience – and how to present it.
To do so, the setting is brought to the modern day, with genius projection design (more on this later) to cement this. Changes are made to the libretto and score (not least cutting it down by about a half) and the very intricacies of the characterisations are rethought to reshape the portrayal of East Asian women, no longer as subservient and submissive, but as powerful and independent. The casting, previously very male-centric, now features female-identifying performers in some roles normally taken by male-identifying performers, and an entirely East and South East Asian cast, doing away with the practice of yellowface.
Bringing a thunderously powerful soprano to the stage, the titular lead role of Turandot (Reiko Fukuda) is a true force to be reckoned with. With a voice filling not just the small space of the Arcola Theatre but probably all of Dalston, if not all of London, Fukuda delivers a gripping portrayal of Turandot. There were times when this became just a bit too forceful for the cramped space of the Arcola – the role could have done with a bit more subtlety to show us just who Turandot is with less volume - but it was on the whole an arresting performance. But she is not the only portrayal we see, as Turandot is also presented as an animated figure, not unlike a video game character in style, in Erin Guan’s mesmerising video design. This dual presentation is unlike anything I’ve seen before in opera, and is bafflingly astonishing.
As a counterpoint to Fukuda, Prince Calaf (James Liu) is remarkably timid, despite the text’s characterisations of Calaf as incessantly insistent on marrying Turandot and confident in completing her riddles. Most of the time this comes across well as a stylistic choice – balancing out the power of Turandot with his gentleness, but in the most famous aria, ‘Nessun Dorma’, what should have been a showstopper risked becoming more of a passing moment.
Taking my breath away the most, however, was Heming Li whose portrayal of Liú gave everything – and more. With the most stunning soprano voice for the ages paired with a well-acted stage performance, Li lit the stage up brilliantly every time she appeared, and it felt almost as if I was willing the story in my mind to include her more, as her lack of presence on the stage for much of the second act was a notable absence, and one that was definitely felt.
As a whole, the ensemble are tight – if sometimes not quite together – with a mysteriously dressed group of performers clad in white shrouds, as well as a chorus of singers tucked away in the corner of the Arcola’s space. They are led by Panaretos Kyriatzdis, conducting from the piano, with Thomas Ang in addition to lead the performers with a four-handed piano accompaniment.
And this is probably where Turandot meets its unsolvable problem – Puccini’s thickly orchestrated score for a full symphony orchestra simply cannot be matched in power or emotion by a piano. Despite impressively passionate playing from its two pianists, who manage to hammer out the score using just twenty fingers and a grand piano, without the variations in texture that the full orchestra can offer, the performance risks becoming an endless piano keys-bashing. It’s a difficult problem – there’s not much more space in the Arcola for any more instruments – but a problem nonetheless.
However, any slight niggles one might have with the scoring fades away when one gets sucked into the impressive design of this production. Combining Erin Guan’s animated video design, providing settings in animated backdrops, as well as static images which reinforce directors Iskandar Sharuzuddin and Becca Marriott’s vision for the piece with cheeky and alluring creativity. Guan’s animations take us from Chinese temples and cityscapes deep into meme culture, including King Charles, Donald Trump and the Doge (a Shiba Inu). And it’s brilliant.
This is only added to by Ingrid Hu’s brilliantly minimalistic scenography, with two boxes rimmed with LED lighting on the floor of the stage and a brilliant use of hanging white banners which double as screens for Guan’s projections, as well as a scenic device functioning as doorways. Nao Nagai’s lighting design matches this perfectly, with perhaps the most flashing lights I’ve ever seen in an opera, used to great effect.
It's a genius concept, where Marriott and Sharuzuddin rip up Puccini’s opera and burn it right in front of you. And it’s exactly what this stereotype-filled piece needs. With a touch more fine-tuning of their concept, and perhaps a slightly larger space in which to further reinvent Turandot, this will make the combined powers of The Opera Makers and Ellandar Productions a force to be reckoned with. As soon as the copyright on this work runs out, I expect to see an even more wildly reinvented production hit the stage from this impressive team – and mark my words – it will sell out.
Turandot plays at the Arcola Theatre until 26th August 2023. Tickets are available from https://www.arcolatheatre.com/whats-on/turandot/
Photos by Marc Gasgcoine