Friday, September 30, 2016

Turandot (Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour) - watching the other side of the planet from a cosy Odyssey Cinemas seat

I’m a relatively recent convert to the notion that opera can be an accessible art form. NI Opera’s invitation to review some of their larger works, with their trademark outlandish modern sets and interpretations of the operatic repertoire.

While Salome’s beheading of John the Baptist [spoiler alert!] and dance of the seven veils was certainly memorable, the performance that sticks with me is Turandot. Puccini’s last – and unfinished – opera that combines an emperor, a set of challenges for worker Calaf to overcome to win the hand of Turandot, the emperor’s despotic daughter, wrapped up in a tale of class divides and family reunion as Calaf recognises his blind father Timur.

Director Calixto Bieito was behind NI Opera’s version – in conjunction with Théâtre Du Capitole and Staatstheater Nuremberg – and set the story in a factory manufacturing plastic dolls. Workers slaved away, while the owner looked down from his vantage point high above the factory floor. And all sung in English, which massively helps understanding the plot (though ruins the rendition of Nessun dorma).

When the New York Met’s more traditional version – with dragon heads, bridges, and everything pretty much at ground level – was beamed into a local cinema I went along. Sung in Italian, it was a very formal presentation on a set that had been brought out of storage from the last revival of the show. The sound was noticeably out of sync with the singers’ mouths which rather ruined the big screen effect.

But a couple of weeks ago there was a performance of Turandot by Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour with the Opera Australia chorus. The outdoor performance was being shown in cinemas – pre-recorded with no sync problems – and complete with a soundtrack of crickets gently rubbing their wings that was faded up during quiet moments to add to the atmosphere.

Bringing theatre and opera performances to audiences sitting remote from the venue has become common place. Many large world class venues and producers now extend their audiences (and increase their box office takings to fund these expensive productions) and most cinemas in Northern Ireland are showing a selection of plays and operas throughout the year.

The ‘stage’ in Sydney Harbour included a huge fire-breathing dragon and a 18 metre pagoda. The Emperor didn’t enter stage left or stage right, but instead was craned into view above the chorus, sitting in a huge wooden throne. (He remained up there throughout, strapped into his floating stage, unable to take a bow with the rest of the cast at the end.) Projections behind and across the cast completed the visual imagery.

An up and over garage door opened high up in the towering pagoda to reveal Turandot, level with her floating father. Over twenty minutes she was gradually lowered towards the mere mortals at ground level. Having won her hand, Turandot and Calaf were raised up before the tower revealed one last party piece and its top hinging open like a flower (bad analogy) to reveal the happy couple. A level of heightened symbolism not possible on a traditional indoors stage. In all three performances of Turandot I’ve seen, blind Timur’s slave girl Liù steals the show with her singing and compassion for the old man she cares for.

And all the while in the background were Sydney skyscrapers, the arch of the famous bridge and the curves of the Opera House on the far shore. The elevated action and wide stage inevitably meant that those of us watching in cinemas must have better sightlines than the ‘live’ audience sitting outdoors in raked seating. Our sound mix was crisp and clear, and unaffected by wind and, temperature and humidity. Though quite odd to be watching 16:9 aspect ration images on the enormous cinema screen, accentuating the tall set, rather than the normal thin envelope aspect ratio of modern films. (The National Theatre’s As You Like It also used height to good effect on the silver screen.)

The performance I watched in Odyssey Cinemas had no subtitles. That’s fairly unusual and normally performances will be shown with English subtitles over the original language. [Update - Future screenings will show the subtitled versions.] In terms of aiding audience comprehension – at least for those of us fairly unfamiliar with the plot of operas – the more clues the better to help interpret the subtleties of the stage acting and choreography. (The antics of Pong, Ping and Pang with their individually ridiculous headgear make no sense without explanation or prior knowledge!)

Odyssey Cinemas at Titanic Quarter have a programme of live events, international cinema and even satellite Q&As with actors and directors. Over the next few weeks you can see Australian Ballet’s Sleeping Beauty (4 October) the Royal Shakespeare Company’s King Lear, the 25th anniversary West End version of Miss Saigon, Kenneth Branagh playing The Entertainer, Royal Opera House’s Così Fan Tutte [NI Opera’s Oliver Mears is heading off to become Director of Opera at ROH in February] as well as 1960’s Batman and Japanese steampunk classic Steamboy. And their regular anime screenings are back on 16 November with Your Name.

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