The question that always seems to arise before watching a production of Puccini's Turandot is 'What on earth are they going to do with all those extra heads?' The beautiful, yet icy cold Princess Turandot (Kirsten Blanck) will only marry the man who answers her three riddles. Anyone who attempts to do so and fails will be executed, which, needless to say, leads to a fair amount of death. Director Rupert Goold, set designer Miriam Buether, and Costume designer Katrina Lindsay took inspiration from Damien Hirst, the Bride from Kill Bill, and Zhang Dali, which would explain the skulls, disembodied heads, dangling bodies, and endless amounts of sparkles and sequins on stage.
This production had us scratching our heads on numerous occasions. On the one hand, the set design was incredibly creative and the choreography was stunning. Rather than forcing us into a make-believe China, Goold has sent us to China Town, with most scenes taking place around the tables of a Chinese restaurant or in its kitchen. Turandot's ladies, who reminded us a bit of the Fembots, were always at the ready with fan in hand. Ping (Benedict Nelson), Pang (Richard Roberts), and Pong (Christopher Turner) consistently managed to draw our attention, and Amanda Echalaz's portrayal of Liu had us ready to weep just as she commits suicide.
On the other, we're not quite sure what the ENO is playing at with this over the top production. Is it an effort to be more modern or attract a younger crowd? Scott Handy plays a writer, who never speaks, but constantly gets in the way. The only times he ever really gets involved are when he pulls the Emperor Altoum (Stuart Kale) off the street and when Turandot kills him at the end. Perhaps the Writer is present to remind us that we're watching a production, or perhaps he represents Puccini, who died before finishing Turandot. Either way, it doesn't quite fit. The cast members are dressed as everything from Elvis, to Marilyn Manson, to Michael Jackson, to a Primark victim, which serves to distract rather than add to the piece. Turandot, a Chinese princess, clumsily wields a Japanese sword, which, we assume, is meant to make her appear more menacing than she already is. Kirsten Blanck can certainly sing, but she is no Beatrix Kiddo, which leads us to wonder who is more confused: the people responsible, or the audience.
Although we grew a bit tired of the excess commotion, Puccini's music is beautiful enough to make this production worthy of a visit. You definitely won't get bored.
Turandot is an ENO production, which is playing at the Coliseum until 12 December. Visit the ENO's website for more details. Tickets from £22. Photos by Catherine Ashmore/ENO