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Who knows best in Puccini?

Contrary to a slew of press reviews that called it ‘trashy’ and ‘pointless’, I found Rupert Goold’s production of Turandot at English National Opera apt and often exhilarating.

Goold, 37, is the latest in a parade of youngish theatre and film directors who have been hired to bring an alternative perspective and a different, younger audience into London’s second opera company.

The best thing he does in Turandot is shift its frame from introspect to retrospect. Before the curtain rises, we see an English journalist of the old school scribbling away in his notebook. Throughout the opera, he is the silent observer, adding a wry, laconic, utterly believable dimension to a ridiculous plot.

Turandot was Puccini’s last shot. Bewildered by world war, the rise of fascism and a cancer in his throat, the composer cast around desperately for a plot and finally settled on one that was as far from his trademark realism as he could get.

The story of a Chinese princess who beheads suitors who cannot answer three riddles would not hold the attention nowadays of a kindergarten class. By recasting it as an exercise in western misapprehensions of China, Goold goves the opera credence and involvement. I attended with two guests from Shanghai. They were enthralled.

Staged in a gigantic Chinese restaurant, the crowd scenes are eclectically post-modern, with three Elvis lookalikes, two amateur golfers, a Chassidic Jew, a reform rabbi, a New York cop and other exotica raising the occasional laugh. But the drama is real and the characters strong, the role of slave-girl Liu (Amanda Echalaz) overwhelming the stonefaced presence of Turandot (Kirsten Blanck) and the pompous aspirations of her suitor Calaf (Gwyn Hughes Jones). Turning the torturers Ping, Pang and Pong into drug-crazed celebrity chefs with cleavers and devil’s caps is a Goold masterstroke.

The singing is one rung below international quality and Nessun Dorma never works when sung in English, but the spectacle as a whole is vivid and enthralling, even as the story wimps out in Alfano’s pathetic ending.

Turandot is not, and never will be, a work that tears your heart to shreds. All that Goold has done is to approach it from a different angle, one that can resonate with the sceptical tone of our times while never releasing its grip on the incredulous eye. Miriam Buether’s designs have that kind of arresting immediacy.

Any failure of perception belongs to some of the old-school critics on shrinking newspapers who cannot grasp that opera, like other economic entities, simply must move on. ENO’s strategy seems to be working. The Coliseum audience is becoming more age-diverse, less opera-centric. Maybe the critical approach needs retuning.

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