Modern Puccini opera explores global consumerism
The Puccini opera Turandot, whose most famous aria is Nessun Dorma, will be staged in Belfast next week by Northern Ireland Opera. Jenny Lee spoke to Co Kerry-born soprano Miriam Murphy
BELFAST audiences will be forced to confront the realities of global capitalism in a modern take on Giacomo Puccini's final masterpiece, Turnadot, three performances of which will bring this year's Belfast International Arts Festival to a close next week.
Northern Ireland Opera's co-production with the State Theatre of Nuremberg and the Théâtre du Capitole de Toulouse is directed by Spaniard Calixto Bieito, recently described by the Guardian as "the Quentin Tarantino of opera". With aesthetic references ranging from film-makers Pedro Almodovar to Fritz Lang, Alfred Hitchcock and Tarantino, this new production is a visual tour de force.
The storyline centres on Princess Turandot who has sworn that no man will marry her unless he can correctly answer three riddles. Prince Calaf, captivated by Turandot's beauty, takes up the challenge, determined to win her heart or die in the attempt.
This new production is set in contemporary times in a slave-labour factory under totalitarian rule. Playing the role of Princess Turandot is Tralee-born soprano Miriam Murphy.
"It's based up the tyranny of Chinese communist factory. Everyone working in a factory is under the rule of the horrible Princess Turandot who, as you'd imagine with most monarchs, was born into a life she might not have particularly wanted. She's not a very nice person but I hope to bring some humanity into her character." says Miriam, who is based in London.
The role of Turnadot is one of the most demanding in the operatic repertoire. "I think she sings for a total of 20 minutes but it's a voice killer because it's very high and difficult. Birgit Nilsson was the most famous Turandot and she was renowned for her steely technique and delivery. You need a lot of stamina for it," adds Miriam, who shares the role with Orla Boylan, who will be performing on the Saturday evening.
Miriam is excited to be performing in her first Calixto Bieito-directed production, which comes with a warning that it contains scenes of graphic violence and sexual exploitation.
"It's a very modern production of Turandot. There are no pretty costumes. Usually I have a big gown but in this production I've got a trouser suit and I'm bald," she laughs. "He's made it very relevant and thought-provoking opera about consumerism and it's effect on us and the repression of people."
Puccini created a rich sound world for this dark and erotic opera, with many memorable arias including Signore Ascolta, In Questa Reggia and one of the most famous of all arias – Nessun Dorma, sung as Calaf anticipates winning the princess's hand.
Nessun Dorma popularised by the BBC when used as its theme for the Italia 90 World Cup 25 years ago, was most famously sung by Luciano Pavarotti – who conincidentally made his UK debut on the stage of Belfast's Grand Opera House in 1963.
Miriam believes this production is a good place to start for people who haven't been to the opera before. "Visually it will be extremely interesting for people and aurally they will love with it as they will recognise a lot of the tunes. Orchestrally it's one of Puccini's greatest pieces."
The Ulster Orchestra, conducted by David Brophy, will provide the music for the cast of more than 80 choral singers from all over the island of Ireland who join the international cast.
Northern Ireland Opera was set up five years ago with a mission to provide the highest quality opera to the widest possible audience and to promote young Irish talent. Already it has become a key payer on the international stage, as Miriam recognises.
"What [Northern Ireland Opera artistic director Oliver Mears] has done in such a short space of time is extraordinary. Northern Ireland Opera is a name synonymous with interesting and progressive productions and opera in Ireland in general is really strong."
:: Northern Ireland Opera presents Puccini's Turandot at the Grand Opera House, October 30 – November 1. Sung in English, it is suitable for ages 16+. For tickets visit www.goh.co.uk.