It is not often one has a conversation with someone who looks down upon your favourite opera and yet recently I enjoyed a discussion on opera with one of my film tutors. His view was very purist and he rated Baroque Opera over more modern offerings. My large glass of white wine an accessory to the discussion, rendered me in capable of constructing a decent argument in favour of my beloved Puccino over Handel, Gluck or Scarletti.
On my birthday treat to the ENO’s Turandot I was once more rendered incapable as the production unfolded before my eyes. A performance which rendered me speechless in its over ambitious and pointless detraction from the story of Puccini’s final opera.
In some respects I admire a modernist approach and taking risks. I liked the idea of setting it in a Chinese restaurant but thought the dolls in formaldehyde were trite, and equally I yawned at the beheaded bodies in the kitchen hanging like a nod to the Body Parts exhibition.
The trouble was director Rupert Goold did not set a theme and stick to it. He was not content with a Sirk like staircase for mise-en-scène dramatics alongside the narrative. Was the restaurant set in London or New York? Should have it been set in Beijing? The trouble with having a chorus made up of Elvis, an NYPD cop, nuns, drag artists and 80s throwbacks to name a few (don’t start me on the golfers and the clown!) is the fact you felt the ENO had rushed to fellow theatres and borrowed the costumes from Sister Act/Priscilla Queen of the Desert/Thriller/ Denis and I.
I was exhausted with the array of white petit bourgeoisie representations of modern culture. I always judge a good performance by my tears and I did cry at the end of Act 1 when I was moved to tears due to relief when Lui, Calaf and his father sang in unison reminding me I was at the opera. Suddenly I heard the music and Puccini rang triumphant even if it was in English (yes this was a shocker but the ENO always sing in English).
image: The Guardian
It got worse. I began to wonder if my glass of wine at Carluccios had been drugged particularly when the dancers proceeding Turandot’s entrance didn’t disappear after their initially interesting fan dance. And that is the trouble with the direction – no ability to rein it in. Goold has mixed his media to no effect. Even Turandot bore a resemblance to Kill Bill with her sword wielding antics resulting in the death of the additional characterisation of an onlooker or journalist written into the production for no earthly reason other than to be different.
I was reminded of Isabella Blow when Lui choose poison in the form of bleach as her death aid. Blow was extravagant with magazine budgets often to no great effect which ultimately resulted in her dismissal (no one ever mentions this since she died). The budget was truly blown on the production setting and the irritating composition of characters. This meant it was left to the orchestra and singers to attempt to bluster and muster their way through it. I can only commend their performance in the face of adversity and the flames of the kitchen cooker (Act 3) which made me think Calaf and the writer were about to engage in Ready Steady Cook. The skipping little girl reduced me to Louis Walsh as per X Factor and his comments on the kids’ choir. I could hear Simon pleading for her moment on stage; I was most ungenerous and hoped she would trip.
I had to shut my eyes to transport me to the music and singing - which is the point of opera - or admire the ceiling of the Coliseum, anything other than look at the stage. I have no issue with being visually stimulated but when every action looks like a poor cousin of film and TV, the majesty fo the stage is dimished. And when the ruddy clown stepped forward to mime blowing the fanfare I though Goold would have been better advised to have got Mr Tumble from Cbeeies.
The only bright spot was after the clapping and bowing, (opera goers are nothing other than polite, although the two people sat next to Mr MDS bowed out after Act 2) I managed to entertain all of those in row C, D, and E in the Upper Circle nearest to me when I delivered my Gordon Ramsey impression – basically I was saying to my dad that I had to stop myself from shouting out to Calaf in the kitchen scene after he sang Nessun Dorma (which he did very very well) ‘Now get yourself a drink and f**k off out of my kitchen.’