There was significant expectation, at least on my part, for this one-off performance of Turandot in a production of the China National Opera House of Beijing (CNOH) hosted by the Festival Puccini at Torre del Lago. My curiosity was two-fold: I wished to assess the level of China’s major opera company, and was intrigued at the approach that it would take towards Turandot, an opera set in a fairy-tale China though filtered through a most Western point of view. CNOH (not to be confused with CNPOC, China National Peking Opera, which stages exclusively traditional Chinese opera) was founded in 1952 but most Western opera lovers became aware of it when it invited Luciano Pavarotti to star in a production of La Bohème in 1986. It is a government institution that depends directly on the Ministry of Culture: Maestro Yu Feng, who has been serving as its General Manager, Artistic Director and Principal Conductor, has total control over every detail of its productions.
In the performance under review the orchestra – at least to the extent allowed by the unfavourable acoustics – seemed to have a clean and crisp sound, whereas Maestro Yu (the playbill followed the Chinese custom to place the surname before the first name) for most of the opera chose slow and even slackened tempos creating frequent disconnections between pit and stage, particularly in the Act One finale. The chorus, led by Chen Bing, did not set off to a good start, showing lack of unity in the first act, but improved in the rest of the opera. The Children’s Chorus was, together with the Corps de Ballet, the only Italian element of the production. The soloists displayed unacceptable Italian diction in varying degrees. The best vocal performance came from by Li Shuang, a tenor with an ordinary timbre, but gifted with a correct technique, unconstricted sound and an easy top: he opted for the high variation in “ti voglio ardente” with a good C 5, and the climatic B of “Nessun dorma” had a remarkable effect on the audience. This is a tenor who, in the right hands, could become a viable Calaf in the big international opera companies. The other singer to show good schooling was baritone Genz Zhe as Ping, though his two colleagues, Li Xiang (Pang) and Liu Yiran (Pong) absolved their duties with honour. Tian Hao (Timur) was the only member of the cast to get all the double consonants right, and Wang Haimin’ portrayed a vigorous, perhaps too much so, Emperor Altoum. The interpreters of the Mandarin, the Prince of Persia and the two servants were not credited in the stage bill. Yao Hong was a soubrettish Liù, her instrument thin and unsteady in the middle register; she stood out for her ability to float the sound at the top, though a small crack occurred on the B flat at the end of “Signore ascolta”. As spinto, let alone dramatic sopranos of Asian descent are a very rare bird, I was most eager to hear Wang Wei in the title role. Far from having a Turandot voice, Ms. Wang turned out to possess an instrument in theory better suited for the role of Liù and characterised by a weak bottom, a slightly wobbly middle register and an unreliable top; but it was her ligne du chant, rather choppy and marred by frequent breaths even in the middle of a word, that tarnished her performance: she even took an extra breath right before the high C in unison with the tenor to jarring effect.
The main strength of the performance was the production itself, a traditional mise en scène by Wang Huquan, oleographic and opulent but in good taste, embellished by truly beautiful costumes (except the wise men’s beards held to their faces with very visible elastic bands): in order to create a dazzling final tableau, the chorus got rid of their populace outfits and came back on stage as richly costumed courtiers.
The audience seemed not to care about the only true faux pas of the production, that is showing Liu’s ghost ascending to heaven, and welcomed everyone with a warm applause. The chosen finale was the usual truncated Alfano, fortunately retaining the aria “Del primo pianto”.