George Fleeton


Vivian Coates

Central to the closing weekend of Belfast Festival 2015 was Puccini’s final opera Turandot (Grand Opera House, October 31, November 01) presented by NI Opera as a co-production with the Théâtre du Capitole de Toulouse and the State Theatre of Nuremberg and billed as a UK and Ireland première.

As the audience arrived in the auditorium, they were met with an open stage, a warehouse of sorts, whose floor was filled with large, re-enforced identical cardboard boxes, arranged in straight lines, with a naked toy baby doll sitting on each one; and so it began.

From the opening chords of this amazing opera, we heard the power and exotic colours which Puccini created to describe this oriental land.

But David Brophy’s take on the score was slow and not very vital, rarely expressing the true intentions of this extraordinary work.

His conducting was laboured and at times this jarred with the text and the in-built momentum of the music (for example, in the early choral Gira la cote! through to Perché tarda la luna?)

The lethargy in the pit made the principals struggle at times and this quite exhausted the audience – well, those who knew the score intimately; indeed this production never excited except for the big tutti section of the act 2 finale.

The Ulster Orchestra followed the baton well and provided exotic sounds with an array of percussion from marimbas to Chinese gongs, but it is not an opera orchestra, one which needs to live and breathe with the singers. 

Vocally, there was much to praise from some of the main characters: the soaring and effortless singing of soprano Orla Boylan was exemplary in this fiendish and difficult role; the spinto demands were intact and dramatically magnetic, conveying the wishes of the composer with aplomb.

Boylan was ably partnered by American tenor Marc Heller, who had a forward projection and who sang his big set piece Nessun dorma cleanly, which thrilled the audience.

However the three masks of Ping, Pang and Pong sang unevenly, owing to the miscasting of Eamonn Mulhall as Pong whose voice rarely travelled over the footlights; Paul Carey Jones as Ping projected beautifully with a sizable and fluid baritone, as did tenor Andrew Rees (Pang) who worked the text well and acted up a storm off the line.

The other saving grace of the evening was Anna Patalong who conveyed a warm, lyrical and well projected interpretation of Liù despite being brutalized, mauled and beaten throughout the performance; and the chorus, though having been stripped of all emotion, sang with energy but lacked the dynamics so essential in this score. 

Dramatically, we were transported to some Maoist, totalitarian community where the brutality was relentless; this became quite embarrassing after a while as the shock and awe element soon ran its course; Ping, Pang and Pong were military officers/closet drag queens whose frustrations were brutally and viciously taken out on the innocent.

In deed the level of physical cruelty on stage was unnecessarily over the top; not alone was this cruelty not explained at the beginning of the opera, with the Prince of Persia’s head being lopped off, but at times one could nearly smell the blood - from the female mannequin in act 2 to Calaf being covered in it - not to mention him slicing his chest open, while the near-naked Timur (Stephen Richardson), complete with incontinence-nappy, rolled around on the floor.

A chorus of 80, uniformly costumed in plain blue cotton suits, stood in lines for most of the evening or in a massive group, cowering in terror and then stripped to their underwear; innuendo clearly does not come into Calixto Bieito’s productions, this and others, which are encrusted with heavy-handed sexual vulgarity. 

At the final performance next day, Miriam Murphy took the title role: another Irish dramatic soprano who vocally gave a very different reading to that of Orla Boylan.

With plenty of blade to the voice, Murphy vocally stripped away everyone on the stage, coping splendidly with the many challenges of the score; her Calaf was English tenor Neal Cooper, who seemed to be more involved in the character, and interpreted a decent ‘unknown Prince’ but he was at times a little pushed in the higher sections of the vocal line.

Sung in English (why?) in a variable and not so interesting translation, the text was difficult, most of the evening, to understand; it was a big mistake not to have surtitles. 

The opera played for almost two hours without an interval, and it finished after Liù’s death, the point where Puccini died (November 1924) and left the opera incomplete.

This was a production which numbed and baffled the audience to the point where several people left during the performance; the applause, to say the least, at the end, was distinctly luke-warm.

© mmxv

Vivian Coates is General & Artistic Director of Lyric Opera Productions; in February 2005 he directed a production of Turandot to mark Lyric Opera’s 10th anniversary.

NI Opera’s next undertaking is to revive and tour its 2012 production of Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, with local soprano Giselle Allen; it starts in the Lyric Theatre Belfast on March 11 & 12; details at www.niopera.com