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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858 – 1924)
Turandot (1926)
Maria Callas (soprano) – Princess Turandot; Eugenio Fernandi (tenor) – Calaf; Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (soprano) – Liù; Giuseppe Nessi (tenor) – The Emperor Altoum; Nicola Zaccaria (bass) – Timur; Mario Borriello (baritone) – Ping; Renato Ercolani (tenor) – Pang; Piero de Palma (tenor) – Pong; The Prince of Persia; Giulio Mauri (bass-baritone – A mandarin; Elisabetta Fusco (soprano) – First voice; Pinuccia Perotti (soprano) – Second voice
Chorus and Orchestra of La Scala, Milan/Tullio Serafin
rec. 9-13, 15 July 1957, Teatro alla Scala, Milan
NAXOS 8.111334-35 [77:26 + 41:16]
Experience Classicsonline

The first thing to note about this recording is the excellent sound. It is mono, unfortunately, which lessens the impact of the crowd scenes but the sound picture is clear, orchestral details are well reproduced and there is considerable dynamic width. I gather that the original recording must have been splendid and Mark Obert-Thorn has done the restoration job with his usual care. Some over-load distortion and a number of extraneous noises that obviously emanate from the original masters seem to have been impossible to edit out.
The chorus, trained by legendary Norberto Mola, and the orchestra are on splendid form. Tullio Serafin conducts the lavishly orchestrated score with his customary sense of drama. There is infectious rhythmic impetus in some of the crowd scenes. Tempi are generally sensible and lenient to the singers’ needs.
The title role is one of shortest in any opera and the icy princess doesn’t enter until the middle of act II – apart from a brief appearance in act I, where she doesn’t sing. It is still regarded as one of the most strenuous parts in the literature and a notorious voice-killer. Maria Callas sang it early in her career but when this recording was made she had long since dropped it. Singing a role in the recording studio with sessions spread over several days should be less strenuous than doing it on stage in ‘real time’ but even then it is a severe test. In questa reggia (CD1 tr. 25) finds Callas in admirably steady and secure voice in the opening phrases. She invests the aria with a great deal of warmth. Later though, when she has to sing mostly in the uppermost register she is sorely strained. It is however a deep-probing reading with lots of nuances and even though she can’t compare with Birgit Nilsson or Alessandra Marc vocally, her account is musically and dramatically fascinating. The scene with the three riddles puts her further to the test but she passes it with flying colours and only occasionally does the voice disfigure. In the final act she is again impressive and even my wife, who normally tries to avoid Callas, applauded her. The hardness in tone, that is almost ever-present in Callas’s singing, seems extra appropriate in this role. Still, in the final duet with Calaf, Principessa di morte, she sounds exceptionally human – the ice has already started to melt.
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf sings Liù with Lieder-like care for detail and nuance. Hers is not an Italianate voice but her approach to the role, closer to Mozart than Puccini, makes this a truly touching reading, crowned by a superb Tu che di gel sei cinta.
Eugenio Fernandi, who as far as I know recorded nothing else, is also one of the best Calafs on record. His is a clean beautiful lirico-spinto voice with easy top and romantic glow; what’s more, he sings with taste. In the scene with the riddles he also has the steel to stand up against Callas and I have heard few more beautiful Nessun dormas. The final note is slightly pinched but it is a glorious reading even so.
Nicola Zaccaria, who also sang the role on the Decca set, recorded two years earlier, has the warmth for Timur and Mario Borriello is a good Ping. All three ministers are splendid and also less clowny than is often the case. The Emperor, distantly balanced, is certainly elderly-sounding.
All in all I liked this recording a lot and it should be a worthy addition to any collection, provided one isn’t allergic to the Callas sound. Birgit Nilsson’s two versions, with Björling and Corelli respectively, are still superior. The Decca set from 1972 with Sutherland, Caballé and Pavarotti is admired by many. Also I have a soft spot for the live recording with Alessandra Marc (see review), although the Calaf there is less than attractive.
Göran Forsling

see also review by Ralph Moore



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