Northern Ireland Opera has been in existence a mere five years. Under the imaginative leadership of its youthful artistic director, Oliver Mears, the company has instigated a series of musically successful and theatrically stimulating operatic productions. Northern Ireland Opera has adhered nominally to the requirements of public funding, which, as with most of our mainstream arts organisations here, is fundamental but miniscule relative to the wider world.

The wider world, however, offers not only a source of cost-sharing but also idea-sharing, both of which should be life-blood to a place like Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland Opera’s latest presentation, Puccini’s Turandot, is a co-production with the Staatstheater Nürnberg and the Théâtre du Capitole de Toulouse. The original producer was Calixto Bieito who has gained a reputation for a provocative iconoclasm in his style.

Miriam Murphy (Turandot) and Neal Cooper (Calaf) © Northern Ireland Opera
Miriam Murphy (Turandot) and Neal Cooper (Calaf)
© Northern Ireland Opera

Northern Ireland suffers from being an insular society with a small population which provides hardly the most liberal or broad minded backdrop for activities questioning the tried and tested. Conservatism, with a small “c”, is alive and well here. Paradoxically, our arts world is vital and vibrant and our individual artists are as creative and insightful as anywhere else. But local platforms for the revelation of this talent are few and far between and decreasing steadily – at least in terms of, and as a result of, the steady reduction in public funding.

The plot thickens when our power hungry political rulers come on stage. They demand obeisance to the concepts they consider acceptable, and although tribalism is rife and colours communal responses, generally the politicians of any tint expect the arts and artists to toe the line or be ignored. After all, the arts are not a priority for our political leaders unless they consolidate and confirm voting patterns.

The audience on the first night of Turandot in Belfast’s Grand Opera House, seemed to be lukewarm in its reception. This may have been due to the novelty of having no interval or break between the acts, or it may have been that Bieito’s production, undertaken in this revival by Lutz Schwartz, left the audience bewildered by the horror story, not the fairy tale, which had unfolded before them.

Anna Patalong (Liù) © Northern Ireland Opera
Anna Patalong (Liù)
© Northern Ireland Opera

Musically, there was little in this performance which would have made the audience specifically interrupt the flow of the narrative. David Brophy conducted the Ulster Orchestra with professionalism and control but it was a straightforward reading. The chorus, unusually large for Belfast, sang with confidence and was capable of a full sound when required by the score but in this English language version, the diction of all on stage, including soloists, was variable.

There was nothing especially spine-tingling from the lead singers. Irish soprano Miriam Murphy was a passable Turandot although her top notes were harsh rather than soaring. The big hit of the opera –“Nessun dorma” – passed almost without notice although English tenor Neal Cooper was vocally on top of the role of Calaf. More consistently appealing was Anna Patalong’s lightly nuanced soprano voice as Liù. The three ministers of the story – Paul Carey Jones, Eamonn Muhall and Andrew Rees – were a well matched trio and, as the Mandarin, the emerging Irish bass-baritone of Padraic Rowan hinted at future potential.

As the performance proceeded, it was clear that its strength was theatrical rather than musical. The visual aspect of the production, handled with great imagination by set designer Rebecca Ringst and enhanced by the lighting design of Olaf Lundt , was continually intriguing despite its single set conception. The only obvious hint of chinoiserie was the large, eye-catching, floating, Chinese lanterns whose orange hues provided a sharp contrast to the predominance of the light blue costumes and military garbs – when there were costumes, that is – of costume designer Ingo Krügler.

<i>Turandot</i> in Belfast © Northern Ireland Opera
Turandot in Belfast
© Northern Ireland Opera

Constantly involving was the unfolding interpretation which Bieito had envisaged as the focus of the opera. Set in what seemed to be a forced labour, political prison camp/ factory which, significantly, manufactured plastic dolls, the overwhelming emanation from the stage was the subjugation of the silent majority, the malleable masses who are disposed to accept the brutal abuse of an untouchable, powerful few.

Through Bieito’s unswerving portrayal of physical and sexual violence, black humour and empathetic pathos, the audience in a place like Belfast could not but have found this experience troublesome, harrowing, bewildering. And Bieito cleverly chose to end his production at the point where Puccini left his score unfinished – comfortless and unresolved. At certain levels of his production, did perhaps the audience even perceive parallels with its own situation in Northern Ireland?

***11