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Northern Ireland Opera

Patalong and Jones, Liù and Ping in Bieito’s Turandot
© Patrick Redmond

IN THE FIVE YEARS since Oliver Mears assumed the artistic directorship of Northern Ireland Opera, the company has raised its profile with a sequence of imaginative projects that have attracted attention beyond the province’s borders. Turandot (seen Oct. 30), their first international coproduction, was shared with Théâtre du Capitole in Toulouse and the Staatstheater in Nuremberg, where Calixto Bieito’s new staging of Puccini’s final opera was unveiled back in October 2014.

While it says something for the company that it can now collaborate with an artist as famous as Bieito, the director himself is a worryingly mixed quantity whose distinctly uneven output over the past fifteen years or so has attracted at least as much blame as praise. Undoubted Bieito hits, such as his much-travelled Carmen, have to be balanced against controversial flops such as (in the U.K. alone) his Die Fledermaus for Welsh National Opera and his more recent Fidelio for English National Opera. Those with long memories will recall equally controversial ENO stagings of Don Giovanni and A Masked Ball.

Watching this staging designed by Rebecca Ringst (sets), Ingo Krügler (costumes) and Sarah Derendinger (whose videos would have had far stronger impact had they been more clearly visible), it was easy to feel that shock value is crucial to the self-promotional aspect of Bieito’s product.

The director ended the show—as did conductor Arturo Toscanini, on the very first night at La Scala in 1926—at the point where Puccini stopped composing, following Timur’s threnody for Liù; apparently Bieito believes that “at the end of the opera Puccini wanted a piano” (i.e. a soft ending)—though he doesn’t actually reveal the basis of such a belief. He also decided that the two-and-a-half acts he was prepared to stage would be heard without a break, forcing Belfast audiences to sit through two hours of music at one go.

More controversial was the staging itself, which dropped legendary Peking in favor of the representation of a modern factory where the employees—identically uniformed as in, say, Communist China—produced plastic baby dolls. The single set was made up of row upon row of cardboard boxes, hampering movement in a work whose extensive choral sequences can easily develop a static, oratorio-like quality.

Violence and explicit sexual behavior have long been Bieito trademarks, and though one can scarcely object to the presence of violence in Turandot, as usual he took things to an unprecedented level. Ping, Pang and Pong — skillfully sung by Paul Carey Jones, Andrew Rees and Eamonn Mulhall, respectively, all dressed as contemporary military officers—were engaged in the non-stop humiliation and abuse of members of the chorus and the principals other than Turandot and her father; she herself took on the task of beating Christopher Gillett’s Altoum, who wore only a diaper. 

Much of the show’s action comprised repeated whippings, beatings, the stripping of uniforms from the chorus, and the simulated rape of Liù. Even Timur did not escape Ping, Pang and Pong’s sadistic attentions; he was strangled at the end of his elegy for Liù, while Miriam Murphy’s Turandot was tearing the life-size plastic babies limb from limb. The problem with all this indiscriminate mayhem is that Bieito has lost any ability to sense when he might have made his point and is in danger of becoming wearisome and even ridiculous. The dictum “less is more” clearly has no meaning for him.

This is a shame, because Northern Ireland Opera brought strong musical elements to its most ambitious project yet. Though less effective than her lower register, the middle and top of Murphy’s dramatically inclined soprano were confidently and powerfully employed in the notoriously treacherous writing Puccini allots his antiheroine. English tenor Neal Cooper proved a good match for the Irish soprano, rising to every challenge with full and focused tone. Anna Patalong sang a Liù of consistent delicacy and vocal sensitivity. Stephen Richardson’s sonorous Timur possessed grandeur and nobility. 

With impressive work from the chorus and disciplined singing from the children’s chorus of St. Anne’s Cathedral, as well as the solid Ulster Orchestra in the pit, conductor David Brophy had good forces for the score’s grander gestures; he could have provided more momentum, but he delivered the music with security as well as aplomb.  —George Hall 

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