Monday 2 November 2015

Puccini - Turandot (NI Opera, 2015 - Belfast)

Giacomo Puccini - Turandot

NI Opera, 2015

David Brophy, Calixto Bieito, Orla Boylan, Marc Heller, Anna Patalong, Stephen Richardson, Christopher Gillett, Paul Carey Jones, Andrew Rees, Eamonn Mulhall, Padraic Rowan, Gemma Prince, Heather Fogarty, David Lynn

Grand Opera House, Belfast - 31 October 2015

I have to admit that although I am by no means fond of Pasolini's 1975 brutal and near-unwatchable final film 'Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom', it has to be said that it remains an important and influential work that still has the power to shock and horrify. Like it or not, references to the work in an opera production are still guaranteed to cause controversy and raise an outcry, but you'd have to ask serious questions why such an extreme outlook needs to be brought onto the opera stage in the first place, as for example in Andrea Breth's production of Verdi's La Traviata at La Monnaie. The director made a strong case for it there, but references to 'Salò' accompanied by equally disturbing imagery in Calixto Bieito's production of Turandot for the NI Opera is surely taking things too far?

It is hard to imagine quite how such an extreme treatment could be applied with any validity to Puccini's colourful fairy tale opera, nor is it immediately obvious as you are watching the production, since the scenes enacted here scarcely bear out what is detailed in the libretto. But then of course nothing about Calixto Bieito's productions are ever obvious. It is interesting and fortuitous (but maybe not all that surprising) that elements of this production just happen to echo current events relating to the increased prominence of China on the world's political and economic stage. There was the state visit of the President of The People's Republic, Xi Jinping, signalling closer economic union between Britain and China last week, and the newprint ink was still damp on reporting of the relaxation of China's one-child rule when this production opened at the Grand Opera House in Belfast. Still, what's that got to do with Turandot and why bring 'Salò' into it?

Puccini never intended Turandot to make any kind of political statement, but there certainly is room to find a darker subtext in the bold new musical direction that the composer had embarked upon in his final few works. Turandot is, despite its fairy tale trappings, unquestionably a dark, sombre and even violent work, even more so than the traditional underlying subtext of most fairy tales. It's about a cruel princess who executes anyone who fails to answer her riddles. Many have come to her kingdom hoping to melt her frozen heart, but all of them end up beheaded, her regime also carrying out torture and executions. It's all there in the plot of Turandot and it's all there in the music too. The Chinese musical quotations are not there for exoticism this time with Puccini, but rather they are intentionally dissonant and jarring, accompanied by huge, heavy orchestration and powerful choral arrangements. Turandot herself is one of the most challenging soprano roles for any singer, demanding Wagnerian stamina with firm high coloratura.

Bieito evidently brings this dark undercurrent to the foreground by setting it in Communist China, although there is little to differentiate between China of the recent past and the more capitalist-friendly China of today. The workers, all in blue uniformed dungarees, work in a sweatshop that seems to trade in medical body parts ('Medorgan'), most of which seem to come from excess babies. Or dolls maybe, but they tend to bleed when bashed head-first onto the floor. It's a totalitarian regime with Ping, Pong and Pang less comedy figures and rather more authoritarian mandarins. Dressed in Communist military uniforms, they are shown brutally beating, stripping and raping the workers, mercilessly clamping down on them when they fall behind Calaf and his attempts to win the hand of the ice princess. They do a lot worse in their torture of Calaf, Liù and Timur in their attempts to uncover Calaf's identity. It's the use and abuse of the bodies of the people as the ultimate commodity in a consumerist society, and seen in that context, Pasolini's stark and bleak vision of 'Salò' is not only appropriate, but even more prophetic and relevant today.

Viewed realistically, Turandot is not a distant fairy tale unrelated to the real world either, but one which can be seen to say a lot about China, or indeed about pretty much any modern so-called democracy in our globalised times. You have authorities who keep their actions and activities hidden and unaccountable (presented as riddles) contrasting that with their desire to control the population through fear, seeking to gain access to the private information that they can use to undermine any individual or body (Calaf/Ai Weiwei/the Arts in general) who opposes, challenges or is a threat to their objectives. It's not just China either, but you can apply much of this kind of activity to what is going on all over the world today. The signs of 'Traitor' hung around the necks of artists and intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution are the character assassinations of the right-wing press of today. Chilcot, Guantanamo, Wikileaks, Snowdon, the government seeking powers to monitor the control the freedom of the internet, an unaccountable wealthy 1% elite exploiting and scapegoating the poor; all these apply. If Calixto Bieito had managed to get a pig's head somewhere up there on the stage, it could hardly have been more topical...

Beito's production was of course developed long before last week's news, previously showing in Nuremburg and Toulouse and obviously it makes no such direct reference to any of these issues. Like 'Salò' however, it taps into the undercurrents and it's a measure of how the the subject is presented that it is relevant and can be applied meaningfully to what is going on in the world today. Seen in that light, Puccini's Turandot is a good vehicle for the ideas that Bieito draws out of it, the composer's through composition and the underlying dissonance suggesting something far more sinister lying behind the fairy tale imagery. It's using art to touch on a deeper reality, something that totalitarian states also fear and suppress. It's interesting (and not entirely coincidental I'm sure) that in a time that sees even greater government cuts to the arts (something that affects NI Opera), Calaf sings "Nessun Dorma", the most lyrical moment of the opera while turning around the 'Traitor' sign hung around his neck and writing 'Poetry' on it. And he is roundly kicked and beaten by the authorities, Pang, Pong and Ping for his troubles.

Turandot becomes darker still if it is only taken as far as Puccini composed it before his death, ending at the point where Liù takes her own life. Franco Alfano's completion of the work is abandoned here, ending on this bleak note, the full two-hour performance played without intermission and with no respite from the horror on the stage. There's no redemption for her sacrifice, no winning over of the cruelty of the heartless ruler. If there was anything that weakened the tone established here in NI Opera's production, it wasn't in the singing or the impressive performance of the Ulster Orchestra who were really on fire here, hitting home resoundingly under the baton of David Brophy. Orla Boylan was a formidable Princess Turandot, her mastery of the role impressive; Marc Heller was a lyrical Calaf; Anna Patalong an impassioned Liù; Stephen Richardson a grave, agonised Timur, and Paul Carey Jones' resonant baritone give us an implacably evil Pang. No, if there was any weakness - aside from the continued absurd policy of singing in English (even "Nessun Dorma"!) in a work pitched so high and to a thunderous score that renders the words utterly unintelligible without surtitles - it was that paradoxically the live stage may not really be the best place to highlight such horrors of the world today.

It is an extreme vision and no doubt some reviewers and audience members will be up in arms about the treatment of Turandot here, but despite the best efforts of the director, it can't help but feel 'staged' and tame in comparison to the reality. But it's all we've got, and it's an impressive effort that must be attempted. NI Opera have never shied away from challenges, not least the very threat to their continued existence that the NI Assembly present with their appallingly short-sighted and vicious cuts in funding for the arts. For that and for even daring to put this kind of production on the stage in Belfast, the overwhelmingly positive response from the audience was fully merited. "Not extreme enough" and "met with unanimous acclaim" are not phrases you often see applied to a Calixto Bieito production, but it says a lot for the confidence that NI Opera have in Belfast audiences (evidently a more sophisticated audience than the booing contingent that blights La Scala, Covent Garden and the Paris Opera) to support and recognise the importance of artistic freedom. This is what art can do and this is why we need the arts.

Links: NI Opera