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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Turandot, opera in three acts (1924) (text by Adami and Simoni after Gozzi) (completed Alfano) [115.01]
Princess Turandot - Birgit Nilsson, (soprano)
Prince Calaf - Jussi Bjoerling, (tenor)
Liu - Renata Tebaldi, (soprano)
Timur - Giorgio Tozzi, (bass)
Ping - Mario Sereni, (baritone)
Pang - Piero de Palma, (tenor)
Pong - Tommaso Frascati, (bass)
Rome Opera Orchestra and Chorus/Erich Leinsdorf
Recorded 11 July 1959 in Rome Opera House, Rome, Italy.
Remastered to DSD by Soundmirror, Inc.
Notes in English, photos of cast during recording.
Hybrid SACD: stereo 2.0; SACD 2.0; SACD 3.0. ADD
RCA SONY-BMG LIVING STEREO 82876-82624-2 [54.06 + 60.55]

Comparison recordings:

Leinsdorf, Nilsson, Bjoerling, Tebaldi; Rome Opera Orchestra RCA CD [ADD] RCD2-5932

Karajan, Ricciarelli, Domingo, Hendricks, Raimondi, VPO [ADD] DGG 423 855-2

Mehta, Sutherland, Pavarotti, Caballé, Ghiaurov, LPO. [ADD] Decca 414 274-2

Erede, Borkh, Del Monaco, Tebaldi, St. Cecilia SO [ADD] Decca 433 761-2

Chailly, Urbanova, Volonté, Fontosh, Milan SO [Berio completion only] Decca 475 320-2

The idea that a ramrod German conductor like Erich Leinsdorf* could conduct Puccini - would even want to conduct Puccini - would seem almost laughable. Leinsdorf was a “perfect tempo” conductor who widely preached** that once a conductor finds the correct, optimum tempo for a work it isn’t necessary to change it from first note to last. I once watched and heard him destroy the Schubert Ninth Symphony by acting the human metronome and producing an absolutely flawless metrical performance with no emotion whatsoever.

One thinks of Puccini operas as full of arcing romantic phrases, sighing rallentandos, surging accelerandos, hesitant pianissimos; one assumes that the tempo should be difficult even to define, let along keep constant. Leinsdorf proves otherwise, explaining simply that Puccini was a good craftsman who knew how to ask for what he wanted and doesn’t need his music recomposed by the conductor.

That being said, there is nothing at all eccentric, or cold, or methodical about Leinsdorf’s conducting here. His tempi are about what everyone else uses, but he achieves a richer sense of drama.

The assumption has always been that death stopped Puccini from finishing Turandot, but the truth is that he quit working on it because he couldn’t figure out how to end it. It wasn’t a lack of time, but a lack of a plan. Just as Steven Spielberg loves portraying on the screen little boys in terror and in jeopardy in Puccini’s most popular operas, Manon Lescaut, La Bohème and Tosca Puccini portrayed fragile women destroyed by love. Turandot does that, too, right up to the death of Liù, where he stopped composing. He had always known how the opera was to end, had obviously intended to break out of the mold and show a strong, cruel woman made human by love, but when he came right down to it, he couldn’t do it, he didn’t know how.

The usually heard conclusion by Franco Alfano, the last 23 minutes of the opera, is based on Puccini’s sketches, of which there was apparently a huge amount. But apart from some Puccini tune fragments, it is noisy, bland, devoid of any spark of genius (from Alfano). Better than nothing, until recently it has always been recorded, and it does contain many nice moments and it does carry the story on to the end. Only Karajan is able to conduct the Alfano ending and make it seem like a step up, like a truly building, growing, successful climax. How he accomplishes this is not apparent, but I suspect he does just a little re-composing, or at least re-orchestrating, and maybe everybody should do that. The new Berio completion, also based on Puccini’s sketches, is perhaps more sophisticated, more dramatically justified, but it is not necessarily more satisfactory overall, only much quieter.

Turandot needs the finest recorded sound possible to say nothing of some of the finest voices. My first love affair with the opera, the Decca LP recording with Tebaldi and Del Monaco was to date the finest sound Decca had then achieved and still sounds very fine in CD reissue. While Tebaldi is just a hair’s thickness more secure for Erede than with Leinsdorf, against Domingo, Pavarotti, and Bjoerling, Del Monaco hasn’t a chance. The Leinsdorf recording always sounded very good in its LP and CD incarnations, but this new SACD puts it head and shoulders ahead of everyone else. The DSD remastering means that even the CD tracks on the Hybrid SACD sound significantly better than the previous RCA CD issue - the bass drum just wasn’t there at all - or anybody else’s CD issue. 

Of course if you’re a fanatic like me, you must have them all. Barbara Hendricks and Renata Tebaldi both sing so beautifully I defy anyone to choose. Joan Sutherland does a better job with the role of Turandot than anyone would expect, and Mehta was a superb Puccini conductor - Caballé doesn’t have the high notes and Mehta covers for her skillfully; his Tosca is probably better than Leinsdorf’s in both performance and sound. Karajan’s conducting is extremely fine, especially in the final act, but the incredible tension and drama which Leinsdorf achieves is a landmark in opera recordings, not just Turandot recordings. A Los Angeles radio commentator*** pointed out that the photographs from the LP album of this Leinsdorf recording showed everyone looking “scared to death”; this issue chooses other photographs in which people look more relaxed. 

If you’re searching for the perfect “Signore ascolta!” besides Tebaldi and Hendricks you might want to investigate Masako Deguci on Naxos and the soprano in an “Inspector Morse” television episode, whose name I was never able to discover.

Paul Shoemaker 

*Born Erich Landauer in Vienna in 1912, schooled at the Vienna Academy, a U.S. citizen from 1942, he died in the U.S. in 1993. This recording and Madama Butterfly with the Rome Opera and the Mahler Third Symphony with the Boston SO are generally considered his greatest achievements. To these I would add the [monophonic] Mozart Jupiter and Beethoven Eroica Symphonies with the Pittsburgh SO. He was the first to record Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances and also the first to record the complete Mozart Symphonies (including a terrific #39) with the Royal PO, on Westminster.

**Erich Leinsdorf, The Composer’s Advocate, A Radical Orthodoxy for Musicians, 1981. ISBN 0-300-02427-4, p 148. My copy is signed by the author.

***Jim Švejde, radio station KUSC


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