Review: Turandot (Leeds Town Hall and tour)

Semi-staged brilliance from Opera North in Puccini’s final masterpiece

Gavan Ring as Ping, Joseph Shovelton as Pang and Nicholas Watts as Pong in Turandot (Opera North)
Gavan Ring as Ping, Joseph Shovelton as Pang and Nicholas Watts as Pong in Turandot (Opera North)
©Tristram Kenton

These annual concert experiences are addictive. Opera North has been semi-staging the repertoire giants for a decade or more now, and doing them mightily. Here, in the wake of last year's Ring cycle, it presents a searing account—the company's first—of Puccini's huge and ruthless final opus.

Turandot is a monster of an opera. In style alone it marked a quantum leap forward by the composer of La bohème and Madama Butterfly but, tragically, Puccini did not live to consolidate it. Indeed, he didn't even complete this one: its final minutes were rounded off after his death by Franco Alfano, working from notes he left behind.

The most moving aspect of Turandot is its through-composed score, and even that only hits home in flashes, like sheet lightning in a lowering sky. As lyric theatre it is far from perfect. Few characters behave logically, so their motivations are a puzzle and much of the tragedy feels self-inflicted.

Turandot herself is a psychologically ungrounded enigma; Prince Calaf successfully answers the three riddles that win her hand but then complicates matters by setting her a riddle of his own; the slave girl Liù pipes up about knowing Calaf's true identity when discretion would have saved her life. All this is set in a libretto by Adami and Simoni that groans with expository narration—by the chorus, by a mandarin (Dean Robinson, actually closer to a lime in his shocking citrus suit) and, most extensively, by the sinister turncoats Ping, Pang and Pong.

Where the opera scores is in its merciless buzzsaw momentum, and more by accident than design Opera North delivers this in spades. Aleksander Markovic had been due to conduct, but the company's newly-appointed music director has abruptly left the company in mysterious circumstances (insert scandal of choice here) and so Richard Armstrong has been drafted in as a last-minute replacement. The eminent musical knight proves the ideal man for this job for the very reasons that made his recent outings at ENO such disappointments: he conducts relentlessly, and is unyielding and unromantic throughout. In Turandot that's the big thrill.

'A spine-tingling tincture'

The Orchestra of Opera North, its 90 musicians freed from the pit and serried in dazzling array on the Leeds Town Hall platform, responds with virtuosity and decibels galore. Yet such is the calibre of the vocal line-up that no one is drowned out except when they're intentionally subsumed by the texture. And the magnificent Chorus adds a spine-tingling tincture of its own to the lurid colour scheme.

Rafael Rojas, a celebrated star at Opera North and a shortlisted candidate in last year's WhatsOnStage Opera Poll for his magisterial Andrea Chénier, is in sensational voice as Calaf. Why the Mexican tenor is not a regular in London defies all common sense, for meanwhile Europe and the north of England eats him up. The score's roaring high notes are loud and secure; "Nessun dorma" is given meaning and subtext.

Orla Boylan, who's in equally fine voice and sings a searing "Mai nessun m'avra" with Rojas, contrives in her thoughtful interpretation to give Turandot a hinterland and to draw sympathy for her character. Alastair Miles as Timur and Bonaventura Bottone as the old Emperor do well with the little Puccini gives them, but it's the commedia dell'arte threesome of Gavan Ring (outstanding) as Ping, Joseph Shovelton as Pang and Nicholas Watts as Pong who dominate Annabel Arden's vivid semi-staging.

Arden and designer Joanna Parker fill the platform with busy business. Some things, like the curious death of Sunyoung Seo's tragic but glowingly sung Liù, are a mite too stylised for the concert medium, but they offer plenty to absorb the eye. And the ear is ravished.

Turandot returns to Leeds Town Hall on 12 and 14 May, then tours to Nottingham, Hull, Liverpool and Gateshead until 20 May.