The production certainly has some strengths, but they are offset by a number of problems. The set, designed by Will Bowen, is for the most part extremely impressive, a fusion of Greek amphitheatre and the Forbidden City, complete with miniature replicas of terracotta soldiers. The costumes, particularly of Turandot and the courtiers, also recapture the opulence of the Middle Kingdom. But this opulence is constantly being undermined by inattention to detail: the fake bamboo roof at the centre of the stage looks very fake indeed, in stark contrast to the surrounding stone; the executioner waddles on carrying a sword that looks as though it is made from cardboard and children’s poster paint.
More seriously, Kent’s direction does not capture the passion and violence of the moment. Particularly since the central love interest is so odd, it is surely necessary to communicate the idea that all of this matters because China has been thrown into a deep crisis by Turandot’s refusal to marry, with the riddles as a device to destroy suitors and keep herself chaste. Rather than providing an heir to the imperial throne, she is engaged in a bloody, violent tyranny. There are moments when the production tries to capture this, as the lighting turns red and the crowd lusts for the blood of the Prince of Persia, a defeated suitor, but the choreography is flat, failing to inspire horror. The rest of the time, the production does not even bother: two imperial guards are enough to feebly repulse a supposedly agitated crowd of thirty in the opening scene; later, when Calaf determines to strike the gong to issue his challenge while other characters implore him not to, there is no physical struggle between the two sides to convey the urgency of the moment. The incomprehensible use of children in some scenes lends the show a pantomime air as they totter on, hats askew and peeping at each other. Playing the court scene in Act II for laughs merely further detracted from any sense that something serious was at stake here. A more adventurous and unconventional direction was required to really bring this unconvincing tale to life.
The voice performances themselves started out rather weakly, with even the leads being drowned out by the orchestra at points in Act I. Although the vocal performers certainly strengthened in Acts II and III, Irakli Grigali as Calaf was still eclipsed by the music at points, even during the famous aria, Nessun Dorma, and he generally cut an uninspiring figure. The real stars of the show are the women, Galina Bernaz as Turandot, and particularly Irina Vinogradova as Liu, whose Tu che di gel sei cinta in Act III was sublime – deeply engaging, profoundly heartfelt and transporting. If anyone knew what was supposed to be on the line in this show, it was her. It is a pity that this sense was not more widely shared.