Turandot by Puccini has long been my favourite opera. There is something about the scale of its ambition, the dark tragedy at the heart of what is essentially a love story, and the sheer power of the music that rips my heart out every time I hear it.
I was, therefore, filled with anticipation when I read that Opera North was producing a concert staging of Puccini’s last masterpiece (a concert staging is where the orchestra is on the stage with the singers rather than a full-scale recital). Opera North did this to great acclaim last summer with the Ring cycle. It was explained to me by the ever-wondrous Kara McKechnie, author of Opera North, that the sound of the singers surfs on the orchestra behind them, rather than singing over the orchestra in the pit. It adds to the force of the collective dynamic, forming a kind of Spectoresque wall of sound. In all my years as an opera correspondent (nearly three now) I don’t think I have ever witnessed such a moving performance.
It was performed in the magnificent, opulent Leeds Town Hall, which I approached with some misgivings as the last time I visited this imposing building, it was at her Majesty’s pleasure. The Town Hall used to have a Victorian lock-up in the basement in which, many years ago, I spent the night on a charge of ‘drunk and incapable’. Someone asked didn’t I mean ‘disorderly’? “No,” I replied. “I was so drunk that I was incapable of being disorderly.” It was neither magnificent nor opulent.
Moving forward some 40-odd years, and I’m back in the building, four rows from what was about to be the opera experience of a lifetime. Turandot tells the story of the beautiful yet cold-hearted Princess of China. Each suitor must answer three riddles to gain her hand. If they fail, they are executed. As the mysterious Prince Calaf (Rafael Rojas) enters Peking with his father Timur (Alistair Miles) and besotted slave girl Liu (Sunyoung Seo) in tow, Turandot (Orla Boylan) remains unmarried. This being opera, Calaf immediately falls for Turandot and signals his desire to be tested. Her cynical and weary ministers, Ping (Gavan Ring), Pang (Joseph Shovelton) and Pong (Nicholas Watts) – all comically cruel and sympathetic at the same time – hope for a wedding but plan for another funeral. It’s 26 funerals and a wedding, maybe. Calaf answers the riddles correctly but promises Turandot that he will give up his claim, and his life, if she can find out his name by dawn. Turandot decrees that “none shall sleep” until his name is discovered. And, as all you footy fans out there will know, this is Nessan Dorma, theme to the 1990 World Cup. Rojas belted it out in fine fettle making sure that none slept.
Tragically, Liu is tortured by Ping, Pang and Pong into revealing Calaf’s name, but her love for him is so great that she takes her own life. Her dying aria, ‘tu che di gel sei cinta’, was unbearably moving and a moment that I am never likely to witness again. Bravo, Sunyoung! Liu’s sacrifice and Calaf’s ardour melt Turnadot’s cold heart to where she declares that she knows the stranger’s name – it is love. It was amazing, brilliant, emotional and a tour de force. I cannot praise it enough as words would only fail to do it justice. All the principals, including Boylan’s towering Turandot, were stunning and, backed by an outstanding chorus and orchestra conducted by Sir Richard Armstrong, made it an afternoon of superb opera.
The only fly in the elixir was the small boy sitting next to me, brought by his inattentive mother who should be reported to the opera authorities for cruelty to an opera correspondent. He fidgeted throughout the performance to such an extent that my companion feared he might not live to the end. The only thing that stopped me from beating the little mite to death with my programme was the thought that I might end up in the basement lock-up again.
By Robert Hamilton, Opera Correspondent
Turandot is on at Leeds Town Hall until May 20, 2017. For more information or to book tickets, click here.