Classics Today
Robert Levine
Glorious Turandot For The 21st Century

Puccini’s Turandot was hardly in need of another recording. Extremely well-served on CD and video ( I recently counted 16 on CD and 14 on DVD), with several starring the unbeatable Birgit Nilsson, a surprisingly spectacular Joan Sutherland, Gina Cigna, and Maria Callas, both sui generis, with the likes of Jussi Bjoerling, Franco Corelli, Luciano Pavarotti, Mario del Monaco, and Placido Domingo as Calaf. Starry, and each more than worthy of a place at the top of the discography.

Along comes this one–the first in 20 years, and a studio recording at that–with what might be called “today’s great opera stars”. That appellation certainly rings true and makes this set a must-have, but there’s another reason. We know that Puccini did not finish the opera; that job fell to Franco Alfano, and he did a fine job. But mis-directedly, he was instructed to chop 100 bars from his finale, and that abbreviation is what we’ve all been hearing for almost 100 years. It’s a thrilling and noisy 14 minutes, with lots of competitive singing from Prince and Princess, but its bombast and brevity does not allow for any character development, and in an opera with mostly one-dimensional inhabitants, this is a pity. (Such triumph, immediately after the suicide of the opera’s only loveable character, is simply nasty.)

But here Antonio Pappano has opted for Alfano’s original finale, which runs about five minutes longer than the abbreviated version–and offers Turandot a chance to evolve and grow into a Woman who may just have left her hideous memories and behavior behind. Some of the music is very tender–a good alternative to the all-out-blast–but there are also some extra thrills, with big singing from both. Having heard it, I’d be loath to go back. (N.B: The complete finale was recorded, out of context, by Josephine Barstow, with John Mauceri conducting.)

Sondra Radvanovsky bravely tries on Turandot’s tiara and the fit is ideal. With a repertoire that includes the three Donizetti Queens, Cherubini’s Medea, Amelia in Un ballo in Maschera, Lady Macbeth, Tosca, the Trovatore Leonora, Bellini’s Norma, and Imogen (in Il Pirata), it seems there’s very little she can’t sing with a surprising amount of solidity and excellence.

“In questa reggia” is huge and imperious, with moments of introspection that truly stand out. But beginning with “Straniero, ascolta!” she becomes arrogant and domineering. These opening notes, seemingly of tempered steel, would turn away the most stalwart of Calafs; as the questions continue, you can hear this Turandot’s nerves rattling. In the last act, she is dreadful with poor Liu, and in the extended finale we feel her growing closer to Calaf, with no loss in the ferocity of the high notes. Wow.

Jonas Kaufmann, today’s most potent tenor, seems a bit lost in Act 1. There’s nothing wrong with his singing–jumping out of the crowd calling “Padre, mio padre” for once seems urgent (Bjoerling’s sounds just the right combo of plangent and relieved) and as if he’s a fine contender. He strains a bit after a lovely “Non piangere, Liu” (which seems as if it were recorded out of context; there’s no flow from Liu’s aria to his), but his second act is sensational: strong, self assured, momentarily hesitant. Both high Cs ring out. And in his last act, he’s desperate watching Liu, reaches great heights in a totally memorable “Nessun dorma”, and is tireless in his final victory.

Liu is the soprano Ermonela Jaho, less girlish and even more upsetting than most. The quiver in her vibrato is just right–fear, sincerity, pleading are all there, and the pianissimo B-flats are stunning and true. “Tu, che di gel sei cinta” is defiant rather than pitiful, and all the more effective for it. I wish I appreciated Michele Pertusi’s Timur more, but there’s some shallowness in his tone. Michael Spyres–luxury casting–makes us believe that Emperor Altoum still has plenty to say about ruling his kingdom. Michael Mofidian’s Mandarin sounds important against the gongs and nasty dissonance in the orchestra. Mattia Olivieri, Gregory Bonfatti, and Siyabonga Maqungo are lyrical and cynical at once.

Pappano’s dynamic range with the Santa Cecilia forces occasionally brings to mind Karajan’s, and I don’t altogether mean that kindly. Hushed moments can be close to inaudible (the spooky Act 1 “moon” chorus), and grand moments are in danger of making the neighbors complain. But his view of the work, with one foot clearly in the 20th century and the other in echt-Romanticism, reads brilliantly: clear, dramatic, and with some new things underlined.

Yes, the Sutherland/Pavarotti/Caballé recording on Decca will have to remain first choice, with either the Nilsson/Bjoerling or the Nilsson/Corelli tied for second. But there are moments when Pappano’s sounds like the front-runner.


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