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A CurtainUp London Review
Goold has seen this as a dark and sinister curse both on the suitors who fail and on the princess herself. His royal court in Peking is peopled with those in recognisable costume as if hired for a fancy dress party. The Mandarin who opens the scene has face makeup like a red faced baboon. There is a clown, a Chelsea Pensioner, a classical ballerina, some Goths and three Elvises: presumably they are the Chinese Elvises who in the UK provide a tribute cabaret act for some Chinese Restaurants? It is a scarlet and gold nightclub, lit red with exotic waitresses, tall, dark and Gothic with pointed hair. The table lights are lit skulls.
The chefs enter with machetes and electric hostess trolleys. The princess is accompanied by seven identical apricot coloured, wigged mannequins who move like automata. The royal kitchen from whence come the three Chef (stet) executioners, the ministers Ping, Pang and Pong, is hung with the corpses of headless and failed suitors (think headless Antony Gormleys) as red as those cured duck carcasses that you see suspended in the window in Chinatown. Sharpened knives and hatchets are arrayed on a magnetic strip on the wall. A central bier bursts into flames for cooking on the coals and a glass window looks as if it is half filled with liquid blood. The link is made between good food, violence and sex. Video designer Lorna Heavey projects swirling Chinese characters onto the backdrop for oriental atmosphere.
Our hero, Calaf (Gwyn Hughes Jones) a chunky, chap with the most magnificent tenor voice is dressed as Pavarotti in a navy shortie car coat and a wide yellow tie against his navy shirt and suit. The biggest hand of the night goes not to the exquisite German soprano Kirsten Blanck as the ice maiden but to second soprano of South African origin, Amanda Echalaz who plays Liu, the punkily made up, faithful servant of Calaf's father, Timur, as sung by the sonorous bass James Cresswell. Liu of course is the heroine as she refuses to reveal under torture the name of Calaf which would have released the princess from her contract. Pretty noble when you realise that sweet singing, lyrical Liu herself was in love with Calaf. She does of course have the most accessible arias of the women. Kirsten Blanck is magnificent although haunted by the ghosts of her executed lovers. The Emperor (Stuart Kale) is like a hairy biker, grizzled long hair and whiskers, in a Hell's Angel outfit decorated with braid and jewels.
Actor Scott Handy scribbles away as the author until he comes to a gory end and interestingly one of the pig headed chefs takes over the written account after the Writer is indisposed. Act One sees the Prince of Persia (Joseph Raisi-Varsaneh) shivering in the buff before his execution, and a live size ice sculpture of the princess with curved sword raised on high with the skipping figure of a small girl in communion veil and white dress skipping in accompaniment.
The music is of course, full of wonderfulI arias. In Act Three, comes "Let Them Sleep" the Anglicised version of "Nessum Dorma", the moment we have all been waiting for . . . and what a moment! I loved too the mannequin fan dance with these identical dancers holding fans and wearing veiled headdresses made of stiffened, pleated gauze.
What does it all mean? I honestly have no idea but it is fun and diverting. On Press Night, a small minority of the audience decided to boo the director as if they were at some sort of pantomime and I was told that the audience at Covent Garden two nights before had slaughtered a minimalist production of Tristan and Isolde. Opera fans are either getting militant or losing their manners. Ah well, "Off with their heads I say!"
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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