NI Opera's contemporary co-production of Puccini’s visceral last work leaves no one on the fence in fulfilling the composer's modern vision

There’s nothing like a good dose of blood-letting, sexual violence, torture and a good riddle to grab an audience. Isn’t that the staple diet of half the best-selling novels and more television series and films than not?

Back in the day opera was no different, as Giacomo Puccini’s visceral Turandot illustrates.

Yet opera in 2015 cannot mirror that of a century ago – just as all the other arts should reflect the times we live in – and in this respect Northern Ireland Opera’s first international co-production, with Théâtre du Capitole and Staatstheater Nuremberg, is surely true to Puccini’s intended spirit of Turandot.

In a letter to co-librettist Renato Simone written in 1920 Puccini described his vision for 'a Turandot filtered through a modern brain.' Thus, Puccini - were he alive - would surely approve of director Calixto Bieito’s challenging, provocative interpretation of the Italian composer’s final opera.

From the beginning, the oppressive backdrop of the Roger Waters-esque wall of cardboard boxes removes Puccini’s opera from the China of the Middle Ages and places it in an anonymous factory or warehouse. The Communist-era garb of the cast suggests revolutionary China but Bieito’s vision is unmistakably contemporary, and above all, universal.

Before a single note has sounded the sight of thirty five cardboard boxes in rows on the stage, each topped with a naked baby doll, sets the unpredictable, thought-provoking tone for what’s to come.

Thirty-five men and women as one, clad in the industrial uniform of blue overalls, cap and anti-pollution mouth masks, pick up the tiny figures before them and file mechanically off stage. The reference to China’s – until recently – one-child policy seems overt.

From the dramatic opening orchestral theme the action unfolds in an extended solo-chorus-solo section. A crowd bays for the blood of the Prince of Persia (Conor Breen), awaiting execution for failing the three riddles whose answers hold the prize of the hand in marriage of Princess Turandot.

Timur, the exiled King of Tartary (Stephen Richardson), and his son Calaf (Neal Cooper) literally stumble across each other. Calaf, wildly attracted to Turandot, (Miriam Murphy) opts to take the riddle test – unleashing a series of calamitous events.

This part of the narrative comes across as a fairy tale but there’s no denying the powerful performances of the two tenors. That said, the chorus – the largest-ever assembled by NI Opera – is often the real star of the show.

Much of Turandot’s impact lies in its epic musical scale, though at times the choreography threatens to overpower the music. The three Privy Councillors, the comically named Ping, (Paul Carey Jones) Pong (Eamonn Mulhall) and Pang (Andrew Rees) are wonderfully vile and malicious, dishing out beatings, ritual humiliation and rape.

Dressed in military-police uniform, their sexual molestation of Liu (Anna Patalong) and the placement of her, Calaf and Timur on boxes with signs proclaiming 'Traitor' around their necks evokes memories of Abu Ghraib.

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Yet graphic it is not. The simulated violence and brutality is inferred as opposed to being gratuitously realistic. Even during a bizarre cross-dressing fantasy sequence, the disturbing sight of a woman, half-naked, battered and bleeding from an evident rape cuts a symbolic figure.

She may represent the maltreated Chinese princess of lore who inspires Turandot’s vengeful blood lust, but with a red X taped over her mouth, she more likely represents abused and disenfranchised women the world over.

Other aspects of Bieito’s direction are less obvious and open to interpretation, like the two women who descend from above on ropes to dangle lifelessly just above the stage, or the figures on all fours led by ropes around their necks (again Abu Ghraib) as though they were dogs.

Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty springs to mind; even Bieito’s more ambiguous directorial gestures at least tug emotional strings. The tyranny of corrupt states, the sadistic behaviour of their leaders – nowhere better illustrated than in a haunting scene where Turandot calmly dismembers baby dolls — and the impotency of the downtrodden masses are strongly depicted in the course of a riveting hour and forty five minutes.

Turandot was written in the years after World War I, when Mussolini’s Fascist Party came to power in Italy. Mussolini announced he would attend the opening night of Turandot in Milan’s La Scala on April 26, 1926, on the condition that it was preceded by a rendition of the Fascist anthem, 'Giovinezza'  a demand that Toscanini refused to bow to.

As for the music, the Ulster Orchestra is totally commanding throughout Puccini’s complex, undulating score. Cooper’s rendition of the aria 'Nessun Dorma', forever associated with Luciano Pavarotti who made his UK debut on this same Belfast stage in 1963 is a predictable highlight. The solo vignettes of the children of St Anne’s Cathedral Choir are less spectacular but just as uplifting.

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Murphy, a convincingly power-consumed, feverishly impassioned Turandot arguably steals the show - each intervention of the soprano is captivating. Bieito brings down the directorial axe on the ending written by Franco Alfano, who completed the work interrupted by Puccini’s untimely death. It’s a bold move in keeping with his singular vision.

An impromptu survey after the show throws up a variety of responses, though the typical 'Oh, I’m not the best person to ask' response suggests that opera is still widely perceived as the preserve of the cognoscenti.

One woman expresses shock at the production’s graphic content ('I won’t be taking my mother to see it'); another is angry at the lack of subtitles (though performed in English much of the narrative must be incomprehensible to those unfamiliar with the text).

Mixed feelings are common; some are confused ('There’s an Emperor? He’s in a f***ing nappy!'); some applaud the boldness of the production ('It was daring. They went for broke'); the music resonates with all; nobody, it seems, is indifferent.

Shock, anger, confusion, surprise and admiration seem like a good return for this contemporary take on an opera just shy of a hundred years old.

Puccini imagined a libretto 'above all highly original, full of colors, surprises and emotion'. Bieito, N.I. Opera and the huge interpretive cast/co-production team tick all those boxes with energy, imagination and flare.