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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Turandot (1926)

(Libretto by Adami and Simoni, based on Friedrich Schiller's adaptation of the play Turandot by Carlo Gozzi)
La principessa Turandot - Maria Callas (soprano)
L’imperatore Altoum - Giuseppe Nessi (tenor)
Timur - Nicola Zaccaria (bass)
Il principe ignoto (Calaf) - Eugenio Fernandi (tenor)
Liù - Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (soprano)
Ping - Mario Borriello (tenor)
Pang - Renato Ercolani (tenor)
Pong - Piero de Palma (tenor)
Un mandarino - Giulio Mauri [Nicola Zaccaria] (bass)
Il principino di Persia - Piero de Palma (tenor)
Prima voce - Elisabetta Fusco (soprano)
Seconda voce - Pinuccia Perotti (soprano)
Orchestra e Coro del Teatro alla Scala di Milano/Tullio Serafin
rec. 9-13, 15 July 1957, Teatro alla Scala, Milan
Experience Classicsonline

This Great Recordings of the Century revival of Puccini’s last opera is very welcome, although the performance has been reissued a number of times in various guises. Its virtues are a dynamically paced and thoroughly idiomatic account of the score from Serafin, and a highly imaginative performance from La Divina of the icy Chinese princess.

On record at least, performances of Turandot have been notable in giving listeners two prima donnas for the price of one. Thus on Erede’s 1955 set we have the hochdramatisch Inge Borkh paired with Renata Tebaldi; the latter also appears on Birgit Nilsson’s first recording, with Leinsdorf for RCA. Joan Sutherland’s later Decca set featured a memorable Montserrat Caballė as Liu, causing one reviewer to suggest that the two divas could have exchanged roles to equally good effect. Indeed Caballė herself later recorded the title role for EMI, although this time with Mirella Freni as Liu. Here on the 1957 recordings we have grand dames of the calibre of Callas and Schwarzkopf, no less, neither of whom might be thought to be obvious casting in their respective roles. Both had in fact sung their roles on stage in the past and reprised these for the purposes of the recording. The booklet includes a charming photo of the two ladies, who were mutual admirers, relaxing over a coffee, perhaps at the time of the sessions.

Callas sang the taxing role of Turandot a number of times early in her career, at a time when she was singing heavier roles than her later repertoire. In the intervening years her star had been very much in the ascendant and Walter Legge had quickly contracted her to record much of the core Italian repertoire for EMI at La Scala. Turandot was scheduled for July 1957 alongside Manon Lescaut, which she never sang on stage. Callas had not performed the role of the formidable princess for eight years, but her first entrance in In questa reggia is commanding, softening for the central section as she recalls the fate of her ancestress and the cause of her hatred of men. Towards the end of the aria the taxing high tessitura seems to pose her relatively few problems. She is equally memorable in the subsequent riddle scene with Calaf; first implacable as she announces the riddles, then increasingly desperate as Calaf guesses them correctly one by one. Her pleading with her father not to be given over to the Prince is most moving, her cruelty in the Third Act at Liu’s torture menacing, her subsequent softening and final acceptance of love for once made almost believable. Not a role that was central to Callas’s repertoire but a good example of her ability to breathe new life into an old warhorse.

Schwarzkopf as Liu similarly had not sung the role for some time (she made an early 78 of Liu’s two arias). She sings the part with her customary sensitivity to words and beauty of tone. Signore, ascolta is beautifully poised, with hushed dynamics; but as so often with this artist it seems a rather manufactured affair. In her Act 3 aria one cannot see (or hear) the wood for the trees of Schwarzkopf’s admittedly meticulous attention to dynamics and word-painting, so that the overall flow of the music is lost. Ultimately, for all her vocal perfection, she does not tug at the heartstrings like a Tebaldi or Caballė and one cannot escape the feeling that she is not entirely idiomatic in the role.

Eugenio Fernandi sings an imposing if unsubtle Calaf, characterising well throughout, especially in the riddle scene. Nessun dorma is given a traditionally big-boned performance, and the final duet with Turandot is suitably exultant. Smaller roles are taken by the likes of Nicola Zaccaria as Timur and the comprimario parts of the three courtiers are sung to perfection. There is a touching link with the past in that the singer portraying the old Emperor, Giuseppe Nessi, sang the role of Pong in the opera’s premiere in 1926. Here he sounds suitably venerable.

Serafin conducted one of the earliest performances of Turandot back in 1926 and his conducting here evinces a lifetime’s acquaintance with the work. He paces the opera with great skill, allowing the scherzo-like moments to come as a welcome contrast to the big set pieces. The end of the first act, for instance, builds to an impressive climax, with Puccini’s exotic Chinoiserie given its head.

Overall the remastering is good, although the balance favours the orchestra and solo voices; at times the chorus, by contrast, sounds rather distant and the big ensembles do not always make the desired impact. It’s a pity that Walter Legge was unable to record the work in stereo; Decca had done it for its recording of the selfsame opera two years previously, to good effect.

There are notes on the recording and artists, and a track-by-track synopsis. For those with access to a computer, the libretto can be downloaded from a PDF file on the second CD.

Ewan McCormick



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