Puccini's final and unfinished masterpiece Turandot opened to a packed auditorium at the Grand Opera House last night, a tripartite co-production between Northern Ireland Opera, the Staatstheater Nürnberg and the Theatre du Capitole de Toulouse.
The central involvement of notorious Catalan director Calixto Bieito portended an iconoclastic and radical approach to the storyline. That was the uncomfortable but predominant sensation — in every sense — at the end of a performance which musically had less strengths than dramatically.
The Ulster Orchestra under David Brophy and the large chorus of NI Opera sustained a good standard throughout and there were moments from the leading soloists which were memorable —especially perhaps Anna Patalong as Liu in her final aria. Miriam Murphy’s top registers in the demanding role of Turandot were rather harsh, and Neal Cooper was a robust but not especially winning Calaf.
Bieito’s production is harrowing, intriguing, multi-layered. His Turandot is not a fairy tale in which everyone lives happily ever after. It ends starkly where Puccini left it at his death, unresolved and comfortless. The non-specific geographical location of the setting, suggesting a toy factory in a political prison camp, was at times beautifully and colourfully suggestive of China with none of the chintzy chinoiserie.
The violence and brutality of the staging was totally comprehensible within the concept of how total power totally corrupts. The unnerving antics of the psychotic princess were mirrored at every level of the production, dwelling on the paradoxical nature of decadent and decaying human corruption where perhaps hope lies only in defiance.