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
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
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
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.