When Antonio Pappano’s recording of Tristan und Isolde was
released in 2005, it was touted in many pages, including these
(8/05), as marking the end of star-studded studio opera
recordings. While it’s true that most opera on record these days
is captured via the cheaper options of filming stage productions
or recording in concert, there are still notable exceptions.
Palazzetto Bru Zane and Opera Rara lavish premium quality on
rare repertoire and there are occasional big-budget projects
with star singers, such as this new recording of Turandot …
conducted by Pappano.
Rather than at his Royal Opera
House base, this Turandot was made in Rome with his other band,
the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia (he
leaves both posts soon). There’s plenty of fierce local
competition on record: Erich Leinsdorf and Francesco
Molinari-Pradelli both recorded it with the Opera di Roma;
Alberto Erede with the Santa Cecilia.
Turandot is a
repellent opera – a grotesque fairy tale featuring a pair of
unsympathetic protagonists – but Puccini composed brilliant
music for it. The orchestral performance here is outstanding.
Pappano captures all the savagery of the score, its ceremonial
pomp and oriental glitter magnificently recorded. It’s
bloodthirsty stuff; even the pizzicato strings are laced with
menace. The Santa Cecilia chorus, Covid-distanced, are
terrifying, spanning the full stereo sound picture, baying for
blood. Incredibly, Pappano has yet to conduct Turandot in the
opera house; that changes this month when he leads the final
revival of Andrei Serban’s Covent Garden staging before it falls
to the executioner’s axe.
Turandot’s toughest riddle is
the puzzle over the ending. Puccini died before writing the
final duet and the opera was completed by Franco Alfano. Arturo
Toscanini, conducting the premiere, famously put down his baton
to end the performance after Liù’s suicide, announcing to the
audience: ‘Here the maestro laid down his pen.’ Some stage
directors take their cue from that example, including new
productions last year by Ai Weiwei (Rome) and Barrie Kosky
(Amsterdam). Luciano Berio composed a new ending, recorded by
Riccardo Chailly (Decca, 5/04), but it never caught on.
The Alfano ending is seen as problematic, an implausible ‘happy
ending’ in which the ice princess melts all too quickly into the
arms of Calaf. Yet the Alfano ending is really ‘Alfano II’.
Toscanini objected to the original completion, enforcing cuts of
over 100 bars to create the standard version. The original
Alfano has been recorded before, by John Mauceri on a programme
of opera finales, but Pappano’s adoption of it is the first time
it has adorned a complete recording.
On paper, Pappano’s
lead singers look pretty damn starry: Sondra Radvanovsky, Jonas
Kaufmann and Ermonela Jaho. But glance at previous recordings
and you realise that top-notch casts were the norm back then:
Birgit Nilsson and Inge Borkh (Turandot), Franco Corelli, Jüssi
Björling and Mario Del Monaco (Calaf), Renata Tebaldi and Renata
Scotto (Liù). Then along came Decca and Zubin Mehta in 1973 with
the surprise assumption of the title-role by Joan Sutherland.
Factor in Montserrat Caballé and Nicolai Ghiaurov as a
luxuriously cast Liù and Timur, and Luciano Pavarotti’s golden
tonsils for the most famous recording of ‘Nessun dorma’ ever
made, and the competition is stiff.
Pappano’s cast stands
up well. Radvanovsky’s soprano has serious ‘blade’ and her
Turandot is truly imperious; her ‘Straniero, ascolta!’, as she
sets the first of her riddles, raised the hairs on the back of
my neck. She unleashes the final duet with massive power, but
where the score calls for pianissimo moments they are essayed
tenderly. Kaufmann’s dusky baritonal tenor makes for a less
heroic or hot-headed Calaf than the bull-in-a-china-shop Del
Monaco or Corelli, almost eliciting sympathy for the character.
‘Non piangere, Liù’ is sung with great sensitivity and ‘Nessun
dorma’ sounds terrific (also served up as a bonus track with
concert ending). Kaufmann holds his own against Radvanovsky in
‘Alfano I’, where the extended duet convinces in context.
Ermonela Jaho sings a heartfelt Liù. Hers isn’t as glamorous
a tone as Tebaldi’s but her vocal acting is superb, making her
devoted slave girl utterly believable. Michele Pertusi’s
bass-baritone sounds grey and careworn, appropriate for Calaf’s
elderly father, Timur, whereas Michael Spyres adopts a grey,
careworn voice for the ancient Emperor Altoum. Mattia Olivieri,
Gregory Bonfatti and Siyabonga Maqungo are lively courtiers,
their Act 2 trio, a perfumed flower amid a blood-soaked score,
beautifully sung. A Turandot for the ages? This recording holds
its own against venerable competition and, in the original
Alfano completion, is unique.