The great soprano Catherine Foster has finally arrived in London, thank goodness. An English nurse who took up singing and made her name in the German-speaking world on the Continent, she already sang Brünnhilde in Wagner’s Ring at Bayreuth ten years ago. Since then she has only got better.
Four years ago I was bowled over to hear her in the same role in Budapest, and recommended to the Royal Opera that they should use her immense talents. Now at last they have — not as Brünnhilde, but as Turandot in Puccini’s final opera.
That opera was unfinished at his death. He had completely orchestrated the first two of its three acts, and more than half of Act 3 (up to Liu’s funeral cortege), but the libretto was not fully written and there were conflicting ideas on how to complete it. Puccini’s publisher Ricordi and the great conductor Toscanini had strong views about following the composer’s intentions, and in 1926 the pianist and conductor Franco Alfano completed it, over a year after the composer’s death.
At the Royal Opera, music director Antonio Pappano had always shied away from conducting it, feeling that it didn’t have the melodramatic pull of Puccini’s other operas. Now, however, he has decided to take it on, not just in the pit at Covent Garden but in a recording with his orchestra and chorus of Santa Cecilia.
The story is set in China where a sphinx-like princess, Turandot, sets her suitors three riddles before they can take her in marriage. False answers lead to immediate execution. The foreign prince Calaf is determined to solve the riddles and win the hand (and eventually the heart) of this ice queen. But having done so he sets Turandot a riddle of his own: if she can guess his name, he will forfeit his life. The only person who can reveal his secret is Liù, the slave girl to the deposed king of Tartary, father of Calaf. She loves him and sacrifices herself, defying the torturers. This exhibition of true love, and her appeal to Turandot finally moves the ice queen. And although Calaf reveals his name to her in secret, when her father the Emperor asks her what it is she replies that his name is “Love”.
The Royal Opera’s present magnificent production dates to 1984, and the current performances are superbly well cast. Not only was Catherine Foster a sublime Turandot, but the Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho sang the role of Liù wonderfully, while the South Korean tenor Yonghoon Lee made a superbly believable Calaf. With Ukrainian bass Vitalij Kowaljow as the deposed king of Tartary giving a tremendous soliloquy in the third act, and three excellent singers as members of the Chinese court, Ping, Pong and Pang (Hansung Yoo, Michael Gibson and Aled Hall), this was a vocal treat.
Performances of Turandot have sometimes failed to move me, but under the baton of Antonio Pappano this was a truly gripping experience. Performances with the same cast continue until April 13.
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