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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Turandot (1926) [125.00]
Lise Lindstrom (soprano) – Turandot; Marco Berti (tenor) – Calaf; Eri Nakamura (soprano) – Liù; Raymond Aceto (bass) – Timur; Dionysos Sorbis (baritone) – Ping; David Butt Philip (tenor) – Pang; Doug Jones (tenor) – Pong; Alasdair Elliott (tenor) – Emperor; Michel de Souza (baritone) – Mandarin; Marianna Cotterill and Anne Osborne (sopranos) Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera Covent Garden/Henrik Nánasi
rec. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, September 2013
Extras: Turandot ; an introduction; Behind the masks; Cast gallery [12.00]
OPUS ARTE OA1132D DVD [137.00]

In the modern era most operatic issues on DVD or Blu-Ray seem to be designed to showcase the ideas - or lack of them - of modern producers. It is unusual indeed to find a release which presents a conception of an opera which has been seen in the theatre for many years. This Royal Opera production by Andrei Serban, first staged in 1984, deserves this distinction. It is far from conventional in design, with its extensive use of masks and imitations of Chinese motifs. Scenery changes take place during the action by the simple device of tableaux which are wheeled onto and off the stage as the action demands. That said, it adheres closely to Puccini’s original scenario and is blessedly free from directorial conceits until the final curtain. At that point, the re-emergence of Liù’s funeral cortege during the final bars flies against the mood of the triumphal music that we are hearing. Otherwise Serban doesn’t put a foot wrong. Indeed his dramatic conception is gripping; the characters discard their masks during moments of crisis to allow their features full expression. The confrontation between Turandot and Liù for example is particularly strongly staged with the princess and the slave finding themselves for once on an equal footing.
 
I seem to recall a television broadcast of the production, with a cast including Gwyneth Jones in the title role, which may at one time have been available on video although I cannot find any current listings of that recording; but in any event this new issue has nothing to fear from comparison with it. In the first place, Lise Lindstrom in the title role of the icy princess is one of the very few Turandots on video who can convince us that Calaf could fall in love with her at sight. Slim, beautiful and expressive, she fills the dramatic demands of the role to perfection; and her singing, steely and passionate by turns, is gripping from beginning (once she actually starts singing halfway through the opera) to end. There are one or two points (such as her two top Cs during the passage following her defeat in the riddle scene) where one might hope for a slightly greater force of delivery; but she never makes an ugly sound, and in the Alfano conclusion (given here in the revised version, but without any further cuts imposed) she melts in a manner that is both musically and dramatically convincing. I cannot recall that Gwyneth Jones did it any better, and Lindstrom is streets ahead of Eva Marton’s assumption of the role on two alternative DVDs that I have seen.
 
By her side Marco Berti cuts a decidedly unromantic figure. He has none of the sense of glamour that one found, for example, in Franco Corelli, but he compensates for this by a close engagement with the text and the drama. At the very beginning he is decidedly stentorian in tone – he addresses Liù initially as though she were a public meeting – but once has seen Turandot he positively melts, showing a welcome willingness to sing quietly and delicately when the music allows and not shirking any of the heroic challenges later on. In fact he positively makes one forget that he is fully a head shorter than his Turandot, and the uncomfortable scene when he kisses her by force (unpleasant overtones here for modern sensibilities) carries dramatic conviction.
 
It is rare indeed in any recording of Turandot to find an unsatisfactory Liù – the role is a gift to any Puccini lyric soprano – but Eri Nakamura makes an unusually positive impression. She sings Signore, ascolta! with all the required delicacy without swallowing her words in the final bars, and she stands up to Turandot in the final Act with all the ferocity of a lioness defending her cubs. Raymond Aceto is less satisfactory in the role of Timur, rather soft-grained in tone and failing to rise to his chilling denunciation following Liù’s death with the sense of tragic grandeur that one might wish; but he is never unsteady in the manner that one associates with many veteran basses. Similarly Alasdair Elliott as the Emperor sounds more youthful than usual, with no hint of Puccini’s request for a “quavering voice”.
 
The production makes something of a feature of the three Masks, who in addition to singing are asked to indulge in some lively choreography and indeed acrobatics, and whose contribution is highlighted in a brief documentary which comes as an extra with this recording. They are not an ideally matched trio – Dionysos Sorbis is rather unsteady in the opening lines of Act Two, and Doug Jones has a stronger voice than David Butt Philip – but they react well together and the sinister nature of their role is not underplayed in this production. One is pleased to observe that their Act Two scene is given at full length here; the ‘standard’ cuts so often made involve the loss of some of Puccini’s most piquant scoring and vocal effects. Michel de Souza makes a mark in his two brief contributions as the Mandarin.
 
I realise that in this review I have made a number of comments on the physical appearance of the principals, and in the light of recent controversies regarding similar remarks by critics about the recent Glyndebourne production of Rosenkavalier I suppose these might need some justification. In a live performance one is of course prepared to make compromises in terms of dramatic verisimilitude for the sake of a musical performance; but on DVD or any other medium intended for repeated viewing one needs something rather more. What it all comes down to is that if a singer does not have the ideal physique du rôle they will need to compensate by some particularly convincing acting if the drama is to ‘work’ properly. In my own experience in the theatre, for example, Birgit Nilsson and Pauline Tinsley were able to make the role of Turandot viable in a way that Rita Hunter was not. This judgement is not of course conditioned by any sense of what Private Eye delightfully dubs “the horde of bronzed Adonises who review opera in the national press” (although one might hope that the cap fits!) but is simply a matter of what does and does not work on screen. I have not seen Tara Erraught as Octavian in the Glyndebourne Rosenkavalier, so any further comment would seem superfluous. What would work in one role might not work in another.
 
I have certainly not seen all the various versions of Turandot available in the visual medium, but this production certainly has more dramatic life than either the Verona production with the statuesque Ghena Dimitrova, either the Met or San Francisco versions with Eva Marton, or the earlier television transmission with Gwyneth Jones. The chorus, largely placed at the back of the stage in the form of spectators, lack the sense of a rampaging mob in places – notably during the first scenes of Act One or the trial scene in Act Two – where the stage might seem dangerously under-populated; but they are always audible and well balanced. The orchestra responds well and with enthusiasm to the conducting of Henrik Nánasi who brings out the many subtleties in the score.
 
Subtitles are provided in English, French, German, Italian, Spanish and Korean. Apart from the documentary on the production of the ‘masks’ there is also a brief introduction to the opera by Antonio Pappano, who also adds summaries of the action before each Act. The audience is commendably well behaved, only breaking in with applause at the end of Signore, ascolta! and avoiding any interruption at the end of Nessun dorma when the music continues without a break. The video production is excellent, enabling us to see everything of importance and avoiding distractions.
 
Paul Corfield Godfrey