The Romantic Revolutionary Revisited: Bieito’s Turandot at Northern Ireland Opera

Puccini – Turandot

Turandot – Miriam Murphy

Altoum – Christopher Gillett

Timur – Stephen Richardson

Calaf – Neal Cooper

Liù – Anna Patalong

Ping – Paul Carey Jones

Pang – Andrew Rees

Pong – Eamonn Mulhall

Mandarin – Pádraic Rowan

Chorus of Northern Ireland Opera, Ulster Orchestra / David Brophy.

Stage Director – Calixto Bieito.

Northern Ireland Opera, Grand Opera House, Belfast.  Friday, October 30th, 2015.  

I saw Bieito’s staging of Turandot last year in Nürnberg and at the time thought it one of the most revolutionary and thrilling productions of anything I have ever seen.  His Turandot is not the feel-good chinoiserie of some chick in a headdress suddenly discovering love thanks to a man who won’t take no for an answer; rather, it’s a parable of violence, domination and control, one that takes its inspiration directly from a reading of the text that is cogent and convincing.

This was my first visit to Belfast and to Ireland and I was delighted to discover a vibrant city with fine restaurants, great bars and a superb opera company.  Northern Ireland Opera was founded in 2010 and in 5 short years has proven itself to be one of the most innovative companies in the UK and Ireland.  For a young company to be doing work at this level is astounding – the quality of the production is worthy of any house, the chorus, excellent and the orchestra, first-rate.  They performed in a jewel of a theatre, intimate with a highly immediate acoustic.  They have clearly put Belfast on the map for serious opera lovers.

Neal Cooper © Northern Ireland Opera
Neal Cooper © Northern Ireland Opera

I wrote at length about the staging last year and the impressions of what I experienced then are pretty much unchanged.  Bieito is a superlative director of singers and he coaxed total performances from every single member of the cast and chorus.  He manages to create genuine flesh and blood characters from every single individual.  He was aided by singing-actors who completely threw themselves into the performance with occasionally alarming results.  At one point, Calaf is physically sick and the violence meted out on characters seems highly realistic.  The factory where the action takes place is not only a doll factory but it is also suggested to be a place where human organs are harvested.  This is intimated by boxes around the stage with the word ‘medorgan’ printed on them.  This is a place where murder thrives, dominated not only by Turandot, but by a corporate-looking man in a suit and three men in army uniforms who enforce Turandot’s discipline.  Yes, for Bieito this is a story about violence but it is about more than that.  There is hope within the horror.  At the opening to Act 3 just before his big number, Calaf writes the word ‘poetry’ on a sign.  The message is that there might be horror in the world but there is also beauty in the most unexpected places.  Despite Calaf’s best efforts to encourage revolution, it is ultimately unsuccessful because the people are unwilling to break out of their condition.  As the curtain closes, we are not aware of what will happen to the people, but instead, each individual spectator will take home his or her individual reading of the work.

Musically, it was given a highly creditable performance by artists who gave absolutely everything of themselves to provide an overwhelming theatrical experience.  Neal Cooper gave us a robust Calaf.  He sang with genuine musicality, phrasing his music with love and affection.  He even gave us a creditable C in the riddle scene and sang ‘that’ aria with great sweep.  His isn’t the most Italianate tone but he gave everything of himself to us both vocally and physically.  It was a performance that inspired great respect and gratitude for an artist who completely pushed himself and gave us a real, lived-in performance.

Pádraic Rowan, Neal Cooper, Christopher Gillett, Chorus of Northern Ireland Opera © Northern Ireland Opera
Pádraic Rowan, Neal Cooper, Christopher Gillett, Chorus of Northern Ireland Opera © Northern Ireland Opera

Miriam Murphy’s Turandot was interesting.  She certainly has volume, at one point pinning me to the back of my seat, and she rode the waves of choral and orchestral sound splendidly.  The sound is penetrating and carries well but I didn’t find that it had great bloom.  I also wish that she’d given the unison high Cs with the chorus sopranos their full value as the sound was definitely there and it was exhilarating.  She is also an affecting actress fully encapsulating the character created for her.  Her singing was always honest and there is undoubtedly a voice there.

Miriam Murphy, Neal Cooper, Chorus of Northern Ireland Opera © Northern Ireland Opera
Miriam Murphy, Neal Cooper, Chorus of Northern Ireland Opera © Northern Ireland Opera

Anna Patalong was a superb Liù who would certainly be at home in any major lyric theatre.  The sound is elegant and velvety, absolutely even throughout the range, and she floated the end of ‘signore ascolta’ wonderfully.  Stephen Richardson perhaps lacked the ultimate in resonance for Timur but he sang with real feeling and phrased his music with eloquence.  Paul Carey Jones was an excellent Ping, his baritone firm and even, and impeccable diction.  Indeed, diction throughout the whole cast was excellent.  He was joined by a mellifluous Pang from Eamonn Mulhall and an admirable Pong from Andrew Rees.  Christopher Gillett sang Altoum with a lieder singer’s attention to text and magnetic stage presence.

Anna Patalong , Chorus of Northern Ireland Opera © Northern Ireland Opera
Anna Patalong , Chorus of Northern Ireland Opera © Northern Ireland Opera

The chorus, brought together especially for this project with singers from throughout Ireland, sang with glorious amplitude and wonderful fresh tone.  Yes there were a couple of first-night glitches and there were a couple of voices sticking out on occasion but they sang exceptionally well and certainly better than what Londoners usually get to hear on Bow Street.  I always judge a chorus on how well the sopranos nail the C-sharp in ‘gira la cote’ and how well tuned the chords after the death of Liù are – in both cases they were spot on.  What struck me most was how not only did they create a corporate sound but they also managed to act as individuals and as a mass.  This was choral singing of the very highest quality.

The Ulster Orchestra played like heroes bringing out so much detail that often gets lost. The opening chords were stunningly articulated with attack as sharp as the executioner’s knife and the chords were also impeccably tuned.  Every single section of the orchestra played their hearts out with playing of virtuosity and generosity.  David Brophy gave us a measured reading that was slower in many ways than one might expect.  He built up Act 1 on a steady pulse and certainly allowed many of the climaxes to register.  I felt however there were a few slight misjudgements – the unison passages with the choral sopranos and Turandot towards the end of Act 2 felt rushed somewhat as did the closing chorus.  The evening ends at the death of Liù and I felt that Brophy could have slowed down and given the music a little more space to make an impact.  Otherwise it was certainly more than decent and allowed the musical and dramatic performances to live fully.

Miriam Murphy, Neal Cooper, Chorus of Northern Ireland Opera © Northern Ireland Opera
Miriam Murphy, Neal Cooper, Chorus of Northern Ireland Opera © Northern Ireland Opera

The one regret I do have – and this is a highly personal one – was the choice of performing the work in English.  Perhaps with a more musical and singable translation it might have worked better, but any translation that puts the big finish of ‘nessun dorma’ on an /3/ sound on the word ‘her’ is clearly not singer-friendly.  The translation also abused the word ‘now’ far too often and distorted some of the rhythmic patterns of the original.  That said, with diction as clear as we were given tonight and no surtitles, the immediacy with which the drama came across to the public was certainly striking.  That’s why I say it’s a very personal regret that I would have preferred to have heard the work in Italian because ultimately I know the work backwards in that language.  In this context, I’m sure the audience appreciated the translation.

When I saw it last year, I mentioned that this was a ‘definitive’ Turandot and I stand by that claim.  For once, we are given a reading of the piece that confronts head-on its brutality and its violence.  What it also gives us is hope; hope that even in the darkest of situations there’s beauty and there’s poetry.  In a way, it’s an empowering reading because it reminds us that it only takes one person to change the world but it needs the rest of us to make it happen.  Tonight, we were given a performance of thrilling immediacy by a cast of singing-actors who gave us opera of extremely high quality.  For a young company this is a major achievement, one that puts Northern Ireland Opera on the map as one of the most exciting and innovative companies in Europe.


Paul Carey Jones, Anna Patalong, Chorus of Northern Ireland Opera © Northern Ireland Opera
Paul Carey Jones, Anna Patalong, Chorus of Northern Ireland Opera © Northern Ireland Opera

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