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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Turandot (1926)
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
NAXOS 8.111334-35 [77:26 + 41:16]
Experience Classicsonline

Having just reviewed the Callas “Bohème” from the previous year, I found myself pre-disposed to re-discover another classic performance in this “Turandot”; as it turned out, that was not quite the case.
 
To clear the decks, let me say unequivocally that as much as I admire Callas and applaud her extraordinary versatility, her voice never completely encompassed the demands of this most exacting of Puccini roles. She sang it twenty-one times in the first two years of her career in Italy because she could, and voices able to do so were – and remain – rare. However, she dropped it as soon as possible, revisiting it only for the purposes of this recording where she presumably thought she could get away with it. Yet the strain is still apparent. She does not sound to be in best voice at this time, despite – or perhaps because of? - having already successfully recorded both “Il barbiere di Siviglia” in London the previous February and then, in March, “La Sonnambula”, in Milan. ”Turandot” requires a big, bold, brassy sing by a dramatic soprano who can maintain a steady, steely emission of tone and belt out fearless, gleaming top Cs and Bs at will. Callas cannot do this and everything from G upwards tends to flap or harden. Given that Turandot herself does not appear for almost an hour into the opera, she really has to make an impact of the right kind; Callas’s difficulties make one wish for Nilsson. Predictably, her best moments come in the last fifteen minutes of the opera when the ice-princess melts; she brings great tenderness to “Del primo pianto”. I do not want to belittle her achievement in bringing Turandot to life; she makes telling use of her biting lower register and brings her customary insight into interpretation of text. I am not the first to suggest that the turmoil of her own emotional life informed her characterisation of Turandot, who emerges as a complex, detailed, touching creation; but the performance as a whole does not display Callas’s best vocal gifts.
 
The recording is in clean, clear, slightly boxy mono, expertly restored, as ever, by Mark Obert-Thorn. The pity of it is that the aforementioned “Barbiere” was stereo and Decca had already made a stereo “Turandot” two years previously. So much of this music consists of grand crowd scenes and ensembles punctuated by brass and timpani, but the overall aural effect here is rather cramped. It’s a pleasure to encounter immediately as the Mandarin so firm-voiced a bass as “Giulio Mauri” - apparently a sobriquet for Nicola Zaccaria, doing a mitzvah for an inadequate colleague on the understanding that he would still get paid. Given his imposing and distinctive tone, in combination with the characteristic little lisp, I wonder that anyone thought he could get away with it undetected – not that it matters.
 
The casting of Schwarzkopf as Liù was controversial. Reactions to her voice are always very personal. I find her somewhat shrill, breathy and tremulous and miss the floating line of Caballé; for me, she is guilty of her besetting fault of mauling the text and injecting too many little gulps and swells for emotive effect. She produces a lovely pianissimo B-flat on “m’hai sorriso”; less so for the same note in “Ah pieta”. Ultimately, I find her too inclined to apply or manufacture intensity; I just want the part beautifully sung by Tebaldi or Caballé, who both have the right vocal personality and thus move me much more readily.
 
Eugenio Fernandi, while not a star name, is more than adequate. He sings a forthright, virile Calf but I miss the clarion heft of Corelli or the squillo of Björling, and his top C only just passes. He certainly holds his own in the “anything you can sing, I can sing louder” match with Callas during the riddles.
 
The rest of the cast is very fine. The Ministers are perfect, displaying expert comic timing and vocal acting; the chorus – albeit rather distanced from the microphone – is responsive and energised; the orchestral playing is skilfully paced by the veteran Serafin, who conducted performances of “Turandot” in the year of its première. Another pleasing link with 1926 is that Giuseppe Nessi, who sings the Emperor here, sang the first Pong. The sheer barbarism of this rather nasty opera and the exotic innovation of Puccini’s chinoiserie emerge triumphant.
 
So for me this “Turandot” does not take its place in the Pantheon of indispensable Callas recordings, though fans of La Divina will want it whatever I say. Almost everything and everyone on this recording is surpassed in another recorded version and first choice remains with the Mehta set, in rich, spacious stereo and featuring two great divas in Sutherland and Caballé, and Pavarotti matching his benchmark performances as a Puccini tenor par excellence in the Karajan “La Bohème” and “Madama Butterfly”. Others might gravitate towards either of the Nilsson assumptions, paired with Björling or Corelli, but the RCA set conducted by Leinsdorf suffers from scrawny sound and not everyone warms to Corelli’s taking liberties in the EMI version conducted by Molinari-Pradelli. Personally, I want all three but must consign this interesting Serafin set to the curiosity category; its fate is a classic proof of the old adage that “the best is the enemy of the good”.
 
For the record, the libretto is by Adami and Simoni, based on Friedrich Schiller's adaptation of the play Turandot by Carlo Gozzi.
 
Ralph Moore
 

 


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