Limelight, 5 May, 2023
by Michael Quinn
Puccini: Turandot (Radvanovsky, Kaufmann, Jaho, Pappano)

A bracing Turandot with Alfano’s extended completion for the first time on disc.

Antonio Pappano’s traversal on disc of Puccini’s mature operas continues with a bracing account of Turandot that uniquely includes the original, extended version (before Toscanini’s meddling truncation) of the ending appended after the composer’s death by Franco Alfano.

Carrying itself with an orchestral and choral punch that brings the opera’s unsettling emotional candour and cruelty to the fore, it is a remarkable account, not least given that Pappano had never conducted the work before (he made his live debut with it at London’s Royal Opera House in March this year) and for having been recorded under COVID-imposed constraints of social distancing.

Not that you would notice. Pappano blazes his way through the score with a sureness of design and execution that lends imposing imperiousness to the savagery of the music, exotic grandeur to the oriental pomp of Turandot’s court, and laces everything together with the alert, febrile emotional pulse and pull of quintessential Puccini.

In that he’s immeasurably aided by Santa Cecilia’s fiercely committed band and full-throated chorus. Together they breathe vivid life into a rich palette of colours with a freshness and urgency accented by Pappano’s pacing.

For evidence of such, listen to the Korngold-like orchestral swagger and choral luminosity of the heightened “Arbita son del tuo destino” deep in Act III, and the opera’s volcanic ending where Pappano’s driven concept reaches its glowing, exultant apotheosis.

It’s noticeable that of the three principals, only one has sung their role previously. No stranger to Puccini, Ermonela Jaho’s Liù, lit up by tortured insight into a conflicted role and an ardent lyric soprano voice, is a highlight of the recording. Her “Tu che di gel sei cinta” is a heart-breaking leave-taking.

Sondra Radvanovsky’s commanding Turandot is also something to behold: a tyrannical misandrist capable of bewitching tenderness. Those contrasts are well delineated in the heightened drama of the Riddle Scene and in her duets with Jonas Kaufmann’s Calaf, through which her spinto soprano moves from stratospheric ecstasy to dangerous, subterranean depths.

In response, Kaufmann brings the muscular poetry and heroic heft of his tenebrous, low-lying tenor to bear, providing a compelling, grounded foil for Radvanovsky. Perhaps a little too grounded, the showcase “Nessun dorma” arguably lacks the nth degree of Italianate feeling and fervour. Even so, he brings a recognisably contemporary sensibility to bear, producing one of the most sensitive and self-aware Calafs on disc.

There is strong support from veteran Michele Pertusi’s harassed Timur, Michael Spyres’ elderly Altuom and, in Matti Olivieri’s Ping, Gregory Bonfatti’s Pang and Siyabonga Maqungo’s Pong, a fine trio of ministers caught between a rock and a hard place.

Despite the pandemic-proofed restrictions of its recording, everything melds together with finesse into an experience of cinematic scale and sweep, one that startles with its directness. Whether it betters its competitors in a crowded catalogue is a matter of taste. But there is no refusing the immediacy of Pappano’s claim to attention and no denying the appeal of this first complete recording of Alfano’s extended ending.


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