Opera North has become adept at dealing successfully with massive projects, concert versions of Wagner’s Ring, for example, staged in the Victorian splendour of Leeds Town Hall in front of video installations. The company has a good grasp of the art of the possible: the nearby Grand Theatre was just too small and unaccommodating, and it was the same story for this, the grandest and gaudiest of Puccini’s operas. Lavish sets and costumes were out, along with video, and the dramatic actions would have to be in the rather minimalist pattern previously established, but there was room for a large orchestra and chorus, and plenty of space for the massive sounds to fill. It was a wise move.

Orla Boylan (Turandot) © Tristram Kenton
Orla Boylan (Turandot)
© Tristram Kenton

The production overwhelmed, as it must. Director Annabel Arden made sure that the limited space available was always used to maximum effect, and the chorus as the people of Peking was terrifying, a single vicious animal for much of the time. Its members were like participants in some fanatical rally, constantly gesticulating, and rarely dipping below forte. They anticipated executions with tumultuous enthusiasm in a city whose walls, we were informed, are adorned with the decapitated heads of the suitors of the cruel, frosty Princess Turandot on her instructions, the ones who failed to answer her three riddles correctly. Only a man (of royal blood, naturally) full of dogged determination and probable stupidity would take the risk to answer the ice maiden’s questions, and that man is Prince Calaf, who suddenly falls in love. His character is very much two-dimensional, which rules out subtlety and invites him to surge ahead at full volume. He resists all pleas to withdraw, and the gong is struck to announce he is in with a chance.

Sunyoung Seo (Liù), Alastair Miles (Timur) and Rafael Rojas (Calaf) © Tristram Kenton
Sunyoung Seo (Liù), Alastair Miles (Timur) and Rafael Rojas (Calaf)
© Tristram Kenton

Tenor Rafael Rojas was breathtaking as Calaf, as he was in January last year in the title role of Andrea Chénier, top notes sweet and pure, everything calculated, never going too far. His seemingly effortless “Nessun Dorma” in Act 3 was thrilling, eclipsing the Pavarotti recording which must have been in most minds. His riddle scene with Orla Boylan as the Princess was particularly gripping. When she explained that she was doing all this to avenge the rape and murder of a predecessor in the distant past in “In questa reggia” (In this palace), she became a powerful, almost Wagnerian presence, living the part convincingly, and her shocked surprise when he came up with the correct answers was well registered, in the context of a restricted acting area and a plot which leaves questions unanswered. Why does Calaf not respond to the fact that the slave girl Liù is deeply in love with him? Why, when she is being tortured by Turandot’s sadistic ministers to get her to reveal his name, does he just stand by, and why, after she has stabbed herself to death does he apparently erase her from his mind?

Gavan Ring (Ping), Joseph Shovelton (Pang) and Nicholas Watts (Pong) © Tristram Kenton
Gavan Ring (Ping), Joseph Shovelton (Pang) and Nicholas Watts (Pong)
© Tristram Kenton

Alastair Miles put his splendidly rich bass voice to good use as the old, blind Timur, the dispossessed Tartar king who is knocked to the ground in Act 1, and Korean soprano Sunyoung Seo was terrific as Liù, her powerful voice and agile facial expressions bringing both maturity and charm to a rather thinly-drawn character. She was particularly good in “Tu che di gel sei cinta” (You who are covered with frost), the aria from when she is being tortured in Act 3, addressed to Turandot, who is looming over her, asking how she stands up to the pain. The torture scene was handled with imaginative discretion, the captives (Timur and Liù) dragged in at the end of a long and bulky rope which stretched across the stage. At its other end, the three odd ministers, Ping, Pang and Pong, brandished various sharp, steel gadgets and smiled gleefully as Liù winced. They were really sinister, in contrast to their appearances earlier, when they are simply clownish. All three sang with great accomplishment, especially Ping, played by Gavan Ring.

Veteran conductor Sir Richard Armstrong stepped in at the last moment, after the sudden resignation of Opera North's music director Aleksandar Markovic. Armstrong decided not to go for anything too finely nuanced, emphasising the exotic grandeur of Puccini’s music, with its brashness, startling dissonances, unusual harmonies and flirtations with the pentatonic scale. The result was magnificent.