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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)

Atto Primo [34:14]
Atto Secondo [44:36]
Atto Terzo [37:31]
Gina Cigna, Turandot
Francesco Merli, Il Principe ignoto (Calàf)
Magda Olivero, Liù
Luciano Neroni, Timur
Orchestra Sinfonica e Coro dell’ EIAR di Tonno/Franco Ghione
Recorded in Mono at Teatro Nuovo, Torino, on 4-15 September, 1938
Giuseppe VERDI Aida "Fu la sorte dell’ armi a’ tuoi funesta" [8:56]
Amilcare PONCHIELLI La Gioconda: "E anathema… L’amo come il fulgor" [3:39]
Gina Cigna, soprano
Cloe Elmo, mezzosoprano
Ugo Tansini, conductor
Orchestra Sinfonica e Coro dell’ EIAR di Tonno
Recorded in Mono at Teatro Nuovo, Torino in 1941
Gustave CHARPENTIER Louise: "De quell di" [4:25]
Franco ALFANO Risurrezione: "Giunge il teno… Dio pietoso" [4:11]
Magda Olivero, soprano
Orchestra Lirica di Tornino della Radio Italina
Recorded in Mono at Teatro Nuovo, Torino on 6 December 1949 and 14 November 1950
Jules MASSENET Manon: "Ebben! Addio, o nostro picciol desco" [3:44]
Magda Olivero, soprano
Orchestra Lirica della Cetra
Recorded in Mono on 6 May 1953
César-August FRANCK La Procession [4:21]
Alexander GRETCHANINOV Step’ju idu ja Unyloju, Op. 5, n. 1 [3:20]
Gerussi CARDUCCI Pantiesmo [2:58]
Magda Olivero, soprano
Ermelinda Magnietti, piano
Recorded in Mono on 6 May 1953 ADD
WARNER FONIT 5050467-1223-2-1 [78:52 + 73:46]


Puccini’s Turandot has recently enjoyed resurgence in notice and performance, even though it was incomplete when Puccini died in 1924. Therefore, considering the variety of endings that have been written and the number of different stagings that this has led to, it is definitely interesting to explore this early recording. Recorded in 1938, with the original ending written by Franco Alfano, this is in essence a historical record of the original performances.

The opera tells the story of Turandot, a Chinese princess, who has decided that any man who wishes to marry her must answer three riddles or die. The handsome youth Calàf, is the prince who undergoes the trials needed to find the answers to her riddles. When he answers her questions, she is bound to marry him but tries to find a means of reneging on the arrangement. There is also a second romantic subplot between Timur, the vanquished king of Tartary, and a slave girl named Liù which ends in tragedy when she kills herself to escape torture at Turandot’s hand. With this act of sacrifice, as well as with Calàf’s persistence, Turandot eventually yields to his passion and repents of the many crimes she has committed.

The opera, should one not have heard it, sounds very like the best of a nineteenth-century opera, save that the virtuosic elements are cast onto the vocalists rather than the instrumentalists. The instrumental works remind one of Copland or Lumbye in the voicings and instrumentation. Indeed, this would not seem out of place, sans-vocals, in a dramatic radio or cinematic context from the early 1930s. The work is very much of its time, with everything that implies.

Considering the age of the recordings, this is a truly remarkable recording. Though it is mono, and the fidelity is definitely that of a 78 from the 1930s, there is little audible evidence of the relatively primitive recording technology available. The balance is quite good for a recording made by placing a microphone somewhere in a studio and positioning the musicians accordingly. The recording was noted for its "total homogeneous effect" in its own day, and through the technical reconstruction and remastering is still notably clean. It also does a better than average job of balancing the singers and putting them in context with the total stage production. The listener gets a good sense of what it would have been like to sit in the audience in 1937, when this was being staged.

The cast used is also quite remarkable, especially in the strength of the minor role singers (both by vocal quality and by reputation). This was not the cast of a single performance of Turandot, but rather an "all-star" grouping of the most notable names that Cetra could assemble. Gina Cigna, in the title role, had performed in Paris for decades, and made this role her own long before this cast was assembled for this particular recording. Her passionate expression through the vast range required for the role is one still studied by those performing the role, and worthy of preservation by any standard. Francesco Merli’s interpretation of Calàf is also one that has survived as notable. Indeed, as late as 1977 it was still noted that Calàf was written in Merli’s image, and that his was the singular performance for the role. Magda Olivero performs the part of Liù, the third feature in Turandot, and was already earning acclaim for her performances as a young woman that would continue through her lifetime. The remaining members of the cast were certainly more than effective in their selected roles, and this recording deserves praise for the strength of the entire cast.

At the end of the second CD are collected a large number of other recordings from the Cetra catalogue. These were made between 1949 and 1953 by Cigna and Olivero. While well selected in the sense that the operatic material does show off the later career of these two women and the continued power of their voices, one wonders as to the reasoning that results in such a collection of unrelated additions. The arias are nice, but lack the strong chorus of the Turandot recordings. It must be supposed that the inclusion here is either for advertising for future releases or due to a desire to preserve and distribute second-tier recordings that would otherwise not have a home. Even so, it is a bit of a let-down at the end of the extended work of Puccini to have a miscellany of arias with a collection of different orchestras, followed by an anthology of relatively simple works accompanied by a solo piano.

That being said, the overarching feature is the opera, and for anyone either interested in the work itself or in the historical preservation and rediscovery of the truly great performers and performances of the past should enjoy this Turandot.

Patrick Gary

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