Wednesday, November 04, 2015

NI Opera's Turandot: spectacular music and theatre (and less brutal than I'd imagined)

Cardboard boxes were stacked the full height of the Grand Opera House stage. Lines of fluorescent tube lighting hung low above the sweat shop floor, itself covered with a grid of 35 cardboard boxes, each with a baby doll lying neatly on top. Blue uniformed workers wore facemasks, presumably to protect them from harmful chemicals in the factory.

From the outset Turandot had scale, made possible by the co-production between Northern Ireland Opera, Théâtre Du Capitole and Staatstheater Nuremberg.

It was a few minutes before anyone sang, but the oppression was palpable. And then a besuited figure appeared high up amongst the boxes, watching over the scene below. Power, control, fear, compliance, systemic intimidation, the cheapness of life, the fruitlessness of work: it was all there in front of our eyes.

Being opera, the subtlety dial was turned down to zero and everything was being to extreme. When a knife was pulled out of a suit pocket, it was both large and already dripping in blood, suggesting regular use. A bit of onstage vomiting added to the grittiness.

The Ulster Orchestra with a turbo-boosted brass section thundered through Puccini’s score in the pit below the stage. If I closed my eyes the music was heavenly; when I opened them I realised I was watching hell.

The chorus was enormous with thirty or forty workers/singers on stage at anyone time. They filled the width and depth of the stage – standing and lying – and created a wall of sound that could compete with the orchestra.

Despite having a really good seat in the circle, like Salome, I found it very difficult to distinguish the words being sung on stage. The paper programme had a two page synopsis of the three act story, but with no interval there was no time to catch up and read ahead once the performance started. But snatched phrases, the on stage acting and the sense of emotion still gave me a real sense of what was going on, even if I was left light on detail about the riddles that Calaf needed to answer to claim the hand of Turandot, and the counter challenge he set her when he solved the riddles but she was unwilling to commit.

The beauty of the vocal harmonies from Ping, Pang and Pong – three internal security apparatchiks – was at odds with the increase in the level of terror and bullying heralded by the threesome’s presence on stage. Hanging cardboard signs round people’s necks added to the humiliation though also helped signpost the plot to the audience.

At one point, a children’s chorus from St Anne’s Cathedral Choir sang beautifully over the heads of the audience from up in the gods, their sweet voices wafting down over the less virtuous action.

This production of Turandot was packed full with memorable imagery. The overalls were a very uncommon shade of blue but it toned perfectly with the brown boxes. It’ll be the only time in my life I see someone set fire to the frame of bicycle and then stand over it warming their hands!

Around 200 Chinese lanterns gently floated up and down above the chorus of workers: mesmerising albeit fairly pumpkin-eqsue given the Halloween weekend of the performance. Two harnessed aerialists descend on ropes from the ceiling and were freed though their significance was lost on me.

Less beautiful but equally stark was the image of Ping, Pang and Pong wanting to “sing songs of love until the morning” yet gurning about the endless cycle of executions they had to oversee … while they changed into white wedding dresses and high heels, brought on stage by a limp woman with bloodied knickers and red tape over her mouth. Pulling tulips from her costume gave a sense of deflowering without the implied violence needing to be enacted. Did I mention the maidens wrapped in cling film brought on to tempt the Calaf?

“Can you not let me die without another young man’s death weighing on my conscience” sang Turandot’s father, the Emperor. He was at his wit’s end and wearing an oversized nappy. Pulling off her wig, the bald Turandot looked not unlike the dolls being manufactured around her.

Normally sung out of context from the rest of the opera we now expect Nessun Dorma to sound like a passionate anthem. In the midst of all of this on-stage misery it took on a much more melancholic tone.

Stripped of their dignity and their blue overalls and left standing in their utilitarian underwear (there’s nothing racy about Turandot), the bruises and evidence of relentless abuse were exposed.

The final scenes after the wig came off left a bald Turandot looking forlorn and very like the hairless plastic dolls she was pulling the limbs off. There was no happy ending.

I attended the final performance on Sunday 1 November. I’d heard a range of opinion beforehand. As the curtain came down on the one hour forty five minute performance, I honestly left the theatre and reflected that it had been a lot less brutal that I’d been advised. Maybe I’ve a high threshold, but much of the more gruesome and twisted abuse was indirect and disguised through symbolism.

Was it uncomfortable to watch? Yes. But a nightmare that warns society not to let the powerful take advantage of the poor does not need to be sugar-coated. It’ll be a long time before the Grand Opera House stage is graced with so many performers.

As an opera you didn’t even need a programme, never mind a foreign language, to pick up the gist of a story and sense what was going on. Contemporary themes echoed from the stage in abundance: poor working conditions, tyrannical management methods and people enslaved in roles performing tasks they can no longer stomach. Long may NI Opera use storytelling to powerfully stir up issues and plant them in local heads. And long may their (paltry) funding pay for – not staff but – performers and musicians and technicians to tell big stories that stretch our minds.

Rather than being blood curdling, Calixto’s Turandot was almost where horror met pantomime. The set and lighting design was superb; the music, cast, scale and sense of drama was spectacular. A stunning end to Belfast International Arts Festival from NI Opera.

You can catch my interview with NI Opera’s artistic director Oliver Mears on NvTv.

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