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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Turandot (1924, first performance, completed by Franco Alfano, 1926)
Cast & recording details below review
OPUS ARTE Blu-ray OABD7142D [125:00 + 12:00]

MusicWeb International contributor Robert Hugill reported on the opening night of this production for Opera Todayreview. I’m not sure exactly when the recording was made – perhaps it’s a conflation of different nights – but I’ve found myself largely in agreement with him throughout this review.

First I should point out that I turned to Turandot immediately after listening to Nicola Luisotti’s Salome (Arthaus blu-ray 101699 or DVD 1089096) – one powerful opera after another – in sound only before watching either of them, thereby avoiding being put off by RH’s minor reservations about some of the acting. Played in this way over a decent audio system, both sound very good and I shall probably listen to them this way in future, in which case both are up against some commanding competition.

In the case of Turandot that comes principally from Joan Sutherland, Luciano Pavarotti, Montserrat Caballé and Zubin Mehta (Decca 4142742) and Birgit Nilsson, Jussi Björling and Renata Tebaldi with Erich Leinsdorf (budget price Alto ALC2021 or highlights on Jussi Björling: The Complete RCA Collection, 88697748922, 14 CDs). I haven’t heard the Alto release but the RCA and Decca recordings sound very well indeed with little concession needed for their age.

Both those classic recordings come with some very big hitters in the principal roles whereas none of the cast of the Opus Arte set are stellar names, though I understand that Lise Lindstrom scored her century in the role in this production.

Just to remind us, if a reminder were necessary, how much personal taste may vary from one listener to another, three reviews of this set appeared while I was absorbing it and making notes. One thought Marco Berti’s Calaf ‘clarion’ clear, a second reported that he had all the necessary notes and then some, while the third thought him the only serious disappointment of the recording.

Ever since the Three Tenors’ World Cup album, Pavarotti’s Nessun dorma has been the benchmark. He was at the pinnacle of his early success when he recorded the part of Calaf for Mehta in 1972, hot on the heels of successes in La Bohème and Rigoletto. His Nessun dorma may be slightly over the top by comparison with Björling’s more thoughtful account but there’s room for both – the Björling easier to live with, the Pavarotti for excitement – and you’d give anything to sing like either just once in your life. Björling’s earlier recording of Nessun dorma on The Very Best of Jussi Björling is equally fine (EMI 5759002 – review – or 6789972: Bargain of the MonthDL Roundup July 2012/1 – both at budget price). Ignore the HMV link in that review and go to 7digital.com for the download.

If Pavarotti is splendid in declamatory manner, his Non piange Liù reminds us that he could do the intimate style equally well; though here again it’s Björling’s quieter manner which is easier to live with in the long run, both offer superb benchmarks. Listen to Björling in In questa reggia, however, and you’ll be reminded that he could also dish it out with the best of them, so in the end he remains my favourite Calaf, as he is all-round my favourite non-Italian tenor in Italian opera.

Judging Marco Berti against Pavarotti and Björling may seem harsh, but in Non piange Liù (track 11), he comes close to matching Björling’s tenderness and Pavarotti’s more overt style. The applause for Eri Nakamura’s Liù which precedes and follows is distracting for repeated hearing, especially in audio only, but both rounds are well deserved and in the latter case it is the end of the act, so no great harm is done.

When it comes to Nessun dorma, it’s hard to forget Pavarotti’s iconic performance – if you don’t want the complete recording with Mehta, you could go for the highlights (Decca E4582022) or even one of Pavarotti’s many single CDs, such as Nessun Dorma: Puccini’s Greatest Arias (Decca 4780208) which I recommended in the March 2011/2 Download Roundup. (Ignore the Passionato link, no longer valid: buy on CD or download in mp3 from 7digital.com or in mp3 or lossless from prestoclassical.co.uk or stream from Qobuz.) Put Pavarotti and Björling out of mind – or even with them at the back of it – and Berti comes very close to rivalling the best of the qualities of each in Nessun dorma on track 25.

Overall, then, I’m with Robert Hugill in enjoying Berti’s robust and thrilling voice and his willingness to moderate his tone and in appreciating having a native Italian speaker with clear diction in the role.

There’s greater unanimity about Lise Lindstrom as Turandot. Robert Hugill thought her in danger of using too much vibrato at the start of In questa reggia (track 19), she settles later into a laser-like sharpness and overall he thought her commanding. I was much less troubled by any initial vibrato – a take from a different evening, perhaps – but I was equally impressed by her other vocal qualities. Her diction may not be as clear as Berti’s – notoriously, this was hardly Joan Sutherland’s greatest strength, either – but, though she and Berti are fairly evenly vocally matched during the confrontation, she (just) outsings him on points.

Eri Nakamura as Liù makes a good impression from her interchange with Calaf in Act I onwards. Throughout her interrogation and torture (track 27) she is impressive and Tu che di gel sei cinta (track 28) is very moving. Listen from that point to the end of the opera and you’ll gain a very favourable impression of all three principal singers. With very accomplished performances from Raymond Aceto as Timur and Alasdair Elliott’s Emperor, and with the Ping-Pang-Pong trio sounding much more than the semi-comic automatons that they sometimes resemble, it’s not hard to see why one magazine made this their opera recording of the month. Perhaps the chorus lets the side down very slightly – hard to project through those masks? – but I didn’t think that detracted much from my general enjoyment.

Robert Hugill mentioned some less than perfect co-ordination between conductor, orchestra and stage but I didn’t find this troublesome – perhaps the problems had been ironed out on the evening in question – and both Nánási’s direction and the Royal Opera Orchestra’s contribution do a great deal to add to the overall success of this recording.

So far I’ve written about the listening experience, in which form I’m likely to enjoy this opera in future as often as from the Decca and RCA recordings. In terms of the production, too, this is a very impressive achievement. So often recently I’ve been disappointed with a DVD or blu-ray recording on the grounds of ridiculous production gimmickry, so it’s a pleasant change to report satisfaction here on visual grounds, too. As is apparent from the cover and the photographs which accompany Robert Hugill’s review – see above – this is traditional in the best sense. The set is based on Andrei Serban’s 1984 staging – Chinese in spirit without seeming kitsch – and it’s a pleasure and a relief to be able to report on a production that is visually exciting and almost entirely free from gimmicks. Bringing on a giant whetstone at the mention of the word is over-literal but hardly offensive and the fact that the moon descends when it’s meant to rise is hardly a capital offence.

As for the acting, if that’s a little less than convincing in places, so is the plot itself and the production serves to remind us that this is essentially a Fairy Tale. Those who dislike extended applause will find plenty of it at the end of the opera, but it’s thoroughly justified.

Good as the Decca and RCA recordings are, the Opus Arte blu-ray, heard through an audio system is better still, especially for fans of surround sound. There’s a very good sense of presence and excellent balance between voices and orchestra, even heard in 2-channel format. I can’t speak for the DVD but I imagine that the better sound and sharper picture quality make it worth paying that little extra for the newer technology, typically around £30 as against £25. If you don’t yet have blu-ray now is a good time to buy, with very decent players available for well under £100 and some which will also play SACDs for not much more. The original purpose of filming this production was for cinema performance and doubtless domestic viewing and hearing is second best to the big-screen experience, but it is nevertheless a very worthwhile second best.

There’s an introduction and a spoken summary at the start of each act from Antonio Pappano, no less, and the booklet contains helpful synopses but these are not keyed to tracks and there is no track list, which made it difficult to find the individual items for comparison. I realise that not everyone needs this facility, but it’s still useful to have. The Italian libretto, for those who like to follow it with the English subtitles on the screen, is readily available from La Scala.

If you are looking for a version of Turandot that makes sense both visually and aurally, there’s no real rival in the first respect and, of those that I know, only the two that I’ve mentioned rival this new recording in the second respect. Given that the blu-ray sells for about the price of two premium CDs and the DVD for slightly less, that’s the best of both worlds. It may be a little mean of me to have resisted giving this a Recording of the Month accolade.

Brian Wilson

Cast & recording details
Turandot – Lise Lindstrom (soprano)
Prince Calaf – Marco Berti (tenor)
Liù – Eri Nakamura (soprano)
Ping – Dionysios Sourbis (baritone)
Pong – Douglas Jones (tenor)
Pang – David Butt Philip (tenor)
Emperor Altoum – Alasdair Elliott (tenor)
Timur – Raymond Aceto (bass)
Soprano Solos – Marianne Cotterill, Anne Osborne (soprano)
Mandarin – Michel de Souza (baritone)
Royal Opera Chorus
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/Henrik Nánási
Director: Andrew Sinclair (revival of Andrei Serban’s 1984 production)
rec. live, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, September 2013
Extra features: Turandot - An Introduction, Behind the Masks and a cast gallery.
Subtitles: English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Korean.
Spoken summary before each act (in English)
Picture 16:9, 1080p
Sound format: 2.0 LPCM + 5.1(5.0) DTS
Worldwide playback