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Turandot review at the Grand Opera House, Belfast – ‘bold, brash and brutal’

Miriam Murphy and Neal Cooper in Turandot. Photo: Patrick Redmond Miriam Murphy and Neal Cooper in Turandot. Photo: Patrick Redmond

Iconoclastic director Calixto Bieito’s Carmen, recently revived by English National Opera, may be relatively tame by his usual provocative standards, but in his Turandot his approach is as hard-hitting as ever. The subjugated masses here are workers in a Chinese doll factory. The place is run by a psychotic Turandot, while her ministers Ping, Pang and Pong are depraved henchmen in army uniform.

Calaf is brutally beaten up for standing out from the crowd of workers. Turandot’s father, the Emperor, hobbles around in a nappy. A video projection shows a man’s face gradually being daubed with Chinese script until, by the end, it is covered in black ink. Most disturbing of all is the element of domination through sexual control. At home, the ministers don wedding dresses carried by a semi-naked slave, and Turandot has two female bodies suspended by ropes as well as one on a leash. The factory workers are randomly stripped and debased by the ministers.

Bieito’s Turandot is a commentary on the atrocities of tyrannical regimes and the loss of identity through conformity; so it’s unsurprising that he ends the opera with Liu’s death, the juncture that Puccini reached at his death: rather than being transformed by Calaf’s love, Turandot is here left unhinged by the uprooting of her power.

Miriam Murphy’s harsh-sounding Turandot was unsettling in its own way, and though Neal Cooper sang gallantly as Calaf, his role was shorn of its dramatic weight. Anna Patalong as Liu created a rare lyrical and expressive high point in her Act II aria. If the Ulster Orchestra under David Brophy took a while to find its stride, the adult and children’s choirs were extremely impressive throughout.

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Bold, brash and brutal, this is a memorable Turandot