TURANDOTOpera North @ Philharmonic Hall 18/5/17
Despite being a staple of a genre which epitomises 19th-century excess, Giacomo Puccini actually wrote his opera Turandot in the 1920s, but died before its completion. This production by the award-winning Opera North uses Franco Alfano’s ending, reconstructed from Puccini’s sketches. It’s an adaptation of an ancient Persian tale (from the lesser-known Thousand And One Days) about an ancient Chinese princess, Turandot (magnificently sung by Orla Boylan), who demands that any suitor for her love must answer three riddles or die. As an unsuccessful prince faces the axe, the visiting prince Calaf is in the crowd. Calaf falls in love at the sight of Turandot’s beauty, despite her deadly conviction that she lives to avenge the rape and murder of an ancient empress who lives again in her. Calaf successfully answers the riddles, only to challenge the princess to guess his name by dawn. Until it is discovered, the proclamation goes out across Peking, none shall sleep – nessun dorma.
Successfully scaled down from the theatrical production, with a teetering two-storey structure rising out of the orchestra – Turandot’s boudoir – most of the action takes place along the front of the stage. This has the added effect of giving the orchestra a dramatic role (in most opera houses, they’re practically out of sight). They are part of that sombre crowd desensitised by executions, or simply mimes behind the music – the synchronised thrusting of violin bows as slave-girl Liu (Sunyoung Seo) kills herself with a soldier’s dagger is one of tonight’s most beautiful moments. The singers are in costume, and for the most part physical acting is restricted to critical moments, with voices and Puccini’s music carrying the drama. Such a two-dimensional staging works, appropriately enough, as a kind of puppet show.
Rafael Rojas, playing the role of hero Prince Calaf, may be having an off night. It’s unusual for singers to walk onstage in their best voice, but he never quite settles into his part, never quite projecting his voice over the orchestra. That said, it’s still an impressive feat – it takes a great deal of skill and technique to sing this music, and he’s not lacking in either. And he brings the goods when needed – yes, that aria. It’s refreshing to hear the high B of Nessun Dorma not dragged out into a petulant cry for approval, but the (relatively) fleeting note Puccini wrote. It’s much more thrilling that way, and it stays with you longer, like a glance exchanged with a beautiful face in a crowd and the conviction that, in another life… Credit is due to conductor Richard Armstrong for putting the score first, to Rojas for surrendering his opportunity to showboat for something much more artistic, and to the audience for not interrupting the flow with continuous applause, making the final standing ovations worth so much more.