Turandot

Music by Giacomo Puccini, libretto by Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni. Act III completed by Franco Alfano

Opera North

The Sage, Gateshead

On 20 May 2017

Review by Peter Lathan

Peking: an all-powerful Emperor and his extremely cruel daughter. Beheadings, torture, suicide, a crowd baying for blood, then begging for the object of their cries to be pardoned, and then in fear for their own lives. What a glorious opportunity for the sort of huge spectacle for which opera is renowned!

And tonight we witnessed a semi-staged concert version.

But what a version! It’s directed by Annabel Arden who, although now best known for her work with Opera North, the ROH, Welsh National, Glyndebourne, ENO and other opera companies in Italy and Spain, early in her career (1983) was co-founder with Simon McBurney of Complicite and that company’s innovative and physical approach to theatre is evident even in the limited space for action on the stage of Hall 1 at The Sage.

The orchestra, with a much augmented percussion section, takes up most of the stage, leaving only a small forestage area for the action, although there is a huge chair—a throne, in fact—upstage right beneath which Turandot herself is discovered on her first appearance. Centre-stage back is the gong which is sounded when a suitor for Turandot’s hand announces his intentions and here the Emperor makes his appearance.

The Chorus is high above them all on that part of Level 3 of the three-level auditorium which is above the stage. It is here that the doomed Prince of Persia makes his final appearance before his beheading.

Not much scope, you might think, for meaningful action, but you would think wrongly: ten black four-legged stools, a fully articulated skeleton and a long length of rope, together with a few balloons, some fans, a tiny brush (for sweeping the ground!) and a knife, are all Arden needs to create her effects. The rope, as well as symbolising the captivity of Calaf, Timur and Liù, is also the instrument of the latter’s torture.

After university, Arden trained at the École Jacques Lecoq in Paris with Monika Pagneux and Philippe Gaulier and this influence is obvious in her interpretation of the government officials Ping, Pang and Pong. They are whiteface clowns, sinister and yet funny in a very black comedy way.

Joanna Parker’s simple set and costumes are a major ingredient in the effectiveness of this approach.

So, do we miss the spectacle? No, we do not, for innovative and imaginative, albeit simple, staging more than makes up for the lack and there is nothing to distract us from the power of the music. Indeed, having the orchestra dominating the stage is a huge plus, for the integration of voices and instruments is much more powerful than when the orchestra is hidden in the pit.

Rafael Rojas plays Calaf as a brooding presence, properly befitting someone who is on the run whom love strikes suddenly. And yes, he passes the “Nessun dorma” test with flying colours, the final “Vincerò!” soaring triumphantly and filling the auditorium. One could feel the audience’s collective shiver!

The part of Turandot is not an easy one, not just because of the demands made on the singer’s voice—and they are considerable—but also because of the emotional changes from the frozen-hearted man-hater to the distraught loser to the recognition that Calaf represents—is—Love.

It has to be said that this final conversion is about as convincing as Katherina’s “A woman moved is like a fountain troubled / Muddy, ill-seeming, thick, bereft of beauty” speech in The Taming of the Shrew—but that’s the story and nothing to do with the performer. Indeed it would be hard to imagine anyone doing it better than Orla Boylan.

As Liù, Sunyoung Seo, in her Opera North debut, captures the essence of this self-sacrificing slave who, alone of all the major characters, is not self-obsessed. And she sings beautifully.

Gavan Ring (Ping), Joseph Shovelton (Pang) and Nicholas Watts (Pong)—two tenors and a baritone—joyfully take on board Annabel Arden’s interpretation of their characters and carry us along with them. There are not a lot of laughs in Turandot but they produce quite a few, to good effect. Their singing, too, is something to write home about!

Whether they’re performing Puccini or Britten, Gluck or Mozart, the Chorus of Opera North is always a significant factor in the success of any of the company’s productions, and this one is no exception. Up on the highest level of the auditorium they may be and divorced in space from the action, but the full power and emotion in their singing is still there.

And it is so good to have in full sight and clearly seen by every member of the audience, the Opera North Orchestra under the baton of Sir Richard Armstrong—just one factor in a hugely successful evening of opera. Semi-staged it may have been but it was a full-blooded performance nonetheless!

This was the production's last performance but it certainly deserves a revival or two!