“Turandot” at the Arcola Theatre felt like stepping into a multiverse of opera. This radical reimagining, part of the Grimeborn Opera Festival, brought together an all East and South East Asian cast and creative team to breathe new life into Puccini’s final and unfinished masterpiece. It left me musically mesmerised, conceptually intrigued, and slightly let down by some tech woes. Still, it’s a show that paves the way for fresh conversations in opera and provides a unique perspective on a classic tale. So, if you’re up for an opera experience that’s part tradition, part tech-savvy, and wholly thought-provoking, this one’s for you.
Unveiling the Enigmatic Original: Puccini’s Turandot and her Chilling Riddles
Puccini’s “Turandot” unfolds in a realm where the formidable princess, Turandot, rules with an icy demeanor. She deters potential suitors by challenging them with three intricate riddles – a game with life-and-death stakes. Failure to solve these enigmatic puzzles results in decapitation, and the chilling sight of skulls adorning her palace walls serves as a stark reminder of her ruthless prowess.
Enter Calaf, a fallen prince from the Tatar kingdom, whose courage and wit lead him to triumph over the riddles. His victory ignites a tempest of emotions within Turandot, who is both infuriated by his success and irresistibly drawn to his boldness.
As the story unfolds, Turandot’s quest for control takes a new form, driving her to uncover the secret that could grant her dominion over life and death – a power she believes will finally free her from vulnerability.
The Brilliant Casting: A Game-Changer in Reimagining Turandot’s Tale
First off, let’s talk about the audacious move that stole the spotlight – an all East and South East Asian cast bringing new life to this age-old tale. It’s the first time in the UK that we’ve seen a production of “Turandot” with a full cast from the Asian diaspora, and whoa, did they deliver! The casting isn’t just for show – it reimagines the opera’s roots in Central and East Asian literature, challenging tired tropes and bringing contemporary resonance. Reiko Fukuda as the titular Turandot and James Liu as Calaf deliver vocal performances that could literally shatter glass. And can we talk about the trio of fierce female artists taking on the roles traditionally reserved for men (Ping, Pang, Pong – here Feng, Xiang and Ming)? Their powerhouse voices made the classic arrangements reach new heights.
“Turandot” was famously accused of containing outdated gender roles, blatant misogyny, and racial stereotypes, or rather “Western fantasies about China”. In fact, it was long banned in China because officials believed it portrays the country negatively. The Opera Makers bravely tackle these issues, not just by strong all-Asian casting, but also by rewriting the crucial role of Liù into a much stronger heroine. She’s not a slave anymore, but a loving wife who takes her life and happiness into her own hands – and makes a decision that literally changes everything. It was such a surprise to watch, but also – such a relief to finally see justice for Liù!
Visual Marvels and Virtual Realms: Costumes and Projections in Technicolor
But let’s not forget the real star of this show – the unconventional costumes. Picture this: futuristic, sleek white jumpsuits that wouldn’t be out of place in “Squid Game,” that get shed to reveal distinctive outfits of specific character. It was a clever move, drawing our focus towards the essence of each character rather than relying solely on spotlight effects.
In terms of stage set, it was a bit of a let down for me. For a sole storytelling machinery, the video projections in the background were just not up to par for a year 2023 in which AI literally generates new visuals and videos for anyone with a laptop and willingness to use new tools like MidJourney. Here, the projections reminded me of Windows 2000 screensavers at times. And meme and Trump-filled collages just didn’t fully convey the message they could.
Enter the Digital Kingdom: Turandot’s Virtual Reality Reign
Now, here’s where the production took a daring leap into uncharted territory – virtual reality. Turandot reigns not just over the kingdom but also a virtual domain. At the beginning, Turandot was introduced as literally a computer-generated being, and frankly, I was a bit worried this role would be generated by a computer. But I breathed a sigh of relief when Reiko Fukuda added real life into this virtual princess as she entered the stage later in Act 1. With a voice demanding attention, she commanded the stage. Her costume, a blend of cyberpunk warrior and video game aesthetics, was an impeccable match to her commanding voice, perfectly encapsulating the reimagined theme of the show.
While the production was undeniably innovative, there were some tech bumps along the way. Subtitles occasionally lagged behind, and there were moments when spotlights and fog obscured them completely. Maybe the unconventional setup of the Arcola Theatre contributed to these issues, but it’s something to consider for future performances.
But let’s not get bogged down by tech glitches because the voices, oh the voices! From the very first note to the resounding crescendos, the cast’s voices transported the audience into a world of raw emotion and untamed power. The talented ensemble, led by Reiko Fukuda as Turandot and James Liu as the resolute Calaf, showcased a breathtaking display of vocal prowess that left me utterly mesmerised. Each aria and duet was a journey of its own, especially when performed by my favourite of the show – Heming Li as Liú. Her performance was an absolute vocal triumph, infusing every note with a heart-wrenching vulnerability that captured the essence of the woman who’s cheated on, and left completely alone in emotional pain.
In the end, this unconventional production of “Turandot” left me spellbound by its vocal performances and mesmerised by its audacious take on integrating technology into opera. It’s clear that a tremendous amount of thought went into reimagining the story, and I hope that, moving forward, equal attention will be given to ensuring a seamless technical experience.
If you’re an opera aficionado seeking a fresh spin on a beloved classic, this one’s for you. Don’t miss the chance to witness history being made and stereotypes being shattered on the Grimeborn Opera Festival stage at Arcola Theatre.
*I received the ticket in exchange for an honest review of the show
Wednesday 23rd- Friday 25th August 2023, 7:30pm Saturday 26th August 2023, 3pm and 7:30pm
Arcola Theatre, 24 Ashwin Street, London, E8 3DL
Tickets: £12-30, available from here
Running time 1 hour 35 minutes, no interval
Director/Dramaturg Iskandar اسكندر Sharazuddin
Musical Director Panaretos Kyriatzidis
Scenography Ingrid Hu 胡嘉倩
Video Design Erin Guan 关绰莹
Lighting Design Nao Nagai 長井懐央
Dramaturgy Consultant Mingyu Lin 林铭宇
Calaf James Liu 廖立志
Turandot Reiko Fukuda 福田玲子
Timur Michael CT Lam 林俊廷
Liú Heming Li
Feng Siyu Shen 沈思宇
Xiang Aina Miyagi Magnell 宮城 愛奈
Ming Salome Siu 蕭仲君
Mandarin/Baritone Ensemble Jacob Bettinelli 吳柏賢
Emperor/Tenor Ensemble Benjie del Rosario
Soprano Ensemble Mandy Liu 廖靜雯
Soprano Ensemble Anna Vienna Ho 何雅鈉
Alto Ensemble Priscilla Fong
Tenor Ensemble Andrew McClarty
Piano Thomas Ang