A trip to Turandot

Manchester performer Anita Ferguson reviews Opera North's Turandot on a Streetwise Opera theatre trip:

My heart always lifts a little when I pass the White Rose on the M62, and I know I'm in my home county of Yorkshire. We were en route to Leeds Town Hall to see Opera North's Turandot by Giacomo Puccini.

I had forgotten that the Town Hall is such a great building. It has a beautifully ornate and opulent interior, with a resonant acoustic. The majestic surroundings lend an air of decadence; this is perfect for a rich and lavish opera such as this. 

Turandot is an opera of vivid colours and dramatic climaxes. There are aggressive rhythms as well - suited to the violent content. There is rich orchestration with extra percussion. Puccini was inspired by melodies on a Chinese music box and we expect an eastern sound. Puccini accomplished this using the Pentatonic scale; amazing what that man achieved with only five notes...

It's a minimalist set, as the vast chorus and orchestra occupy most of the stage. It's definitely worth forgoing scenery for this huge ensemble. We have costumes and imaginative lighting. I very soon forget the lack of props, as the tale unfolds and I'm captivated by the production.

The princess does not sing until half way through, which is a striking thing. We do notice her presence as she hovers, symbolising the despotic regime. She challenges suitors to answer three riddles. Failure means an execution; success a wedding.

The soloists are superb. Prince Calaf falls in love and plans to take the challenge and win the hand of the ruler. Liu, the slave girl played by Sunyoung Seo, loves Calaf because he once smiled at her. He is indifferent. She lovingly takes care of his father - the aged, blind King Timur. I find myself moved by her performance, as she entreats Calaf about the folly and danger of his plan. Her voice is warm, dulcet and affecting.

Calaf, played by Rafael Rojas, is wonderful. In moments of high drama, he does not always force the volume, but seems to hold back, so it is not overblown. The result is a beautiful, nuanced performance and the drama slowly builds.

Orla Boylan excels as Turandot. She has incredible stage presence.She exudes an almost Wagnerian darkness, and plays the ice princess perfectly. She wears a beautiful robe and enormous feathered headdress, which gives her an air of a particularly unpleasant vulture. Her singing is beautiful, but it's hard to love her. Her character is so unsympathetic, unusual for the lead role.

Calaf succeeds in the high-stakes quiz, but she's unwilling to marry him. He kisses her passionately and she melts, becoming more vulnerable, but he's still yet to get the girl. He gives her a challenge: guess his name by dawn. If she does, he will die; if not, they must marry. Liu is tortured, to force her to name him, and eventually kills herself so as not to betray him. Even though I know the story, I find myself praying for Liu's reprieve. I rally against him for loving this heartless tyrant. I still hope he'll fall for Liu. He sings 'Nessun dorma', as the courtiers spend a sleepless night trying to discover his name. It's a very moving, restrained rendition. I cry quietly.  

There are no 'applause breaks' in this opera and I'm glad. I think applause interrupts the flow and mood of an opera. Much better to hear the intake of breath from my neighbours, in the darkness.

The Opera North chorus are a tour de force.They are a mass of awesome fascistic blood-seekers, cheering decapitations with cruel relish. They use wonderfully choreographed hand movements, adding to their fascistic air. They never sing below forte and the wall of sound is like the single cry of a rabid beast, braying for gore. The hall's acoustic magnifies the volume and intensity of the magnificent chorales.

Ping, Pong and Pang, the white-painted masks, were excellent. They appeared at first like hapless clowns, but then transformed into macabre mummers, rubbing their hands malevolently as they tortured Liu. The other minor roles, such as Timur and the emperor, were also very accomplished.

The orchestra, conducted by Richard Armstrong, was magnificent. The Chinese percussion section was beautiful, as was the singing of the local schoolchildren in the distance. The colossal gong suspended above the stage added to the drama and eastern atmosphere. I sometimes had the feeling that the players might break out of the constraints of the manuscript by the tremendous force of the piece, only to be pulled back by the skill of the conductor. I felt that he gave the musicians and singers rein to express intense emotions with abandon, yet would pull them back when needed. This was highlighted in 'Nessun dorma', where we were saved from an over-the-top, clichéd performance, as sometimes happens with this frequently sung aria, with subtle restraint from the conductor.

So Calaf and Turandot are together, much to the disgust of yours truly! I decide that the foolish prince does not deserve to be happy. I can't forgive him for standing by, in lovestruck inertia, while Liu is tortured. I somehow cannot wish the happy couple well...

We end with a tumultuous finale. The whole company sings beyond fortissimo. It's so immense and I am overwhelmed with its magnificence! I find myself weeping unrestrainedly with all that power and unfettered emotion, and I know I'm not alone.

This was a superlative performance from Opera North, of Puccini's final opera. It was truly sublime.