Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Vidar's latest theatre review

Review of audio described performance of WNO’s Turandot on the evening of Friday 10 June at the Birmingham Hippodrome.

As regular listeners of these reviews might recall I am a great fan of the operas of Giacomo Puccini but his last opera Turandot, (which was completed by someone else after his death) is one I know less well. One of the recent World Cup TV coverage anthems made one of the opera’s arias Nessun Dorma, particularly famous, but otherwise I felt I would not be familiar with much of the music. Imagine, therefore, my surprise when on Friday 10 June I enjoyed the Welsh National Opera’s audio-described performance at the Birmingham Hippodrome and I found I recognised a lot more of it than I had expected to.

First performed in 1926, the opera is set in Peking which had become a terrifying place with blood thirsty crowds thronging the city clamouring for ever more public executions. The victims are young men who have attempted to answer 3 riddles and the enticing prize is the hand in marriage of the beautiful, yet cold hearted, Princess Turandot; the penalty for failure however is death.

The WNO’s Stage Manager took fellow visually impaired patrons and companions onto the stage for the touch tour just over an hour before the start of the 3 act performance, and Sightlines’ audio-describers – Margaret Spittles and Julia Grundy – explained the stark and functional set. The stage was enclosed at the back and sides by a massive wall and made from painted wood its appearance resembled sheets of corrugated iron predominantly coloured dark purple. We were told how, on closer inspection, several other colours were evident and the strategic use of lighting brought this out during the show as these colours flowed and changed, at times suggesting for example, the sheen of expensive lacquer ware.

Hanging high up on this curving wall were 148 black and white photographs, each showing a virile young man’s portrait, framed in black. This was a record of all the luckless suitors who had attempted in vain, to win the Princess’ hand, resulting in their execution for failing to answer her riddles.

The different locations of the opera were depicted by a number of simple props carried on, and off, by the singers, or set up during the 2 intervals, and we were shown the large and rather menacing axe which during the opening scene was used by the executioner and slammed down into the floor where it remained quivering and upright, as the crowd milled around it.

A number of us were encouraged to strike a large gong which also featured during the opera helping to enhance the sense of an oriental setting.

The costumes varied were from different periods, some being elaborate traditional attire from the ancient imperial China, and others more like the anonymous uniform of Chairman Mao’s era. We were also able to literally get a feel of the lavish robe worn by the Emperor, which were several metres long.

Ahead of WNO audio described performances the introductory notes - including a helpful synopsis of the opera, which are reprised ‘live’- are always available in advance either online or, by request, on CD. These informative notes along with, of course, some splendid singing by soloists and chorus alike, made it a very memorable evening.

The next audio-described performance by WNO at the Birmingham Hippodrome will be Mozart’s Don Giovanni on the evening of Friday 18 November afternoon and details for tickets, places on the touch tour and headsets can be obtained as usual from the box office on 0844 3385000.

Vidar Hjardeng

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