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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Turandot (1924: completion by Luciano Berio 2001)
Nina Stemme, Turandot; Aleksandrs Antonenko, Calaf; Maria Agresta, Liù; Alexander Tsymbaluk, Timur; Angelo Veccia, Ping; Roberto Covatta, Pang; Blagoj Nacoski, Pong; Carlo Bosi, Altoum; Gianluca Breda, Mandarino; Azer Rza-Zada, Principe di Persia
Coro di voci bianche dell’Accademia Teatro alla Scala, Coro del Teatro alla Scala di Milano, Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala di Milano/Riccardo Chailly
rec. live at La Scala, Milan, Italy (no dates given, performances at La Scala were in 2015)
Sound Format PCM Stereo, DTS-HD Master Audio Stereo/Surround 5.1
Picture Format 16:9, 1080i; All Regions
Subtitles in Italian, English, French, German, Korean, Chinese; notes and synopsis English only
DECCA 074 3938 Blu-ray [136 mins]

Puccini saw the key problem of Gozzi's commedia dell'arte play Turandotte right at the start of his work on his opera in 1920. He wrote that it would be necessary, "to exalt the amorous passion of Turandot, who for such a long time has suffocated beneath the ashes of her great pride." William Ashbrook, in his book on the operas, notes that this stumbling block was the very part of the opera Puccini failed to complete, the scene where the princess sees Calaf as a lover, not just another victim to slaughter. The key aspect of this new Blu-ray is that Alfano's ending, long established but never really satisfactory, has been replaced by that of Luciano Berio, published in 2001. Berio has attempted to make this vital transformation work on stage. One would have expected an essay on this to be part of the notes - there is just one sentence. The disc should have contained some sort of discussion - there is none. Even Decca's synopsis is a reprint from 1984, predating the Berio edition by nearly twenty years. Those interested in this very different ending will have to turn to online sources. Decca should be ashamed of themselves. Andrew Clements's 2002 article on the Guardian website is approving of Berio and usefully detailed. You may not agree with his opinions; I must say I emphatically do. If a purchaser buys this disc simply expecting the rousing, positive, traditional ending they are going to be very disappointed. Be warned but please still buy it.

Negativity over - this is a magnificent performance by everyone. The very end, where we watch the departure into the dark palace of the self-centred and bloody couple, Calaf and Turandot - who have the good fortune to have each found, surely the only partner on the planet, who can possibly love them - is suitably ambiguous. They stop to stare down at the body of Liù and then step over her corpse to start their lives together. The evidence suggests Puccini would not have been so very brutal at this point; here the future looks likely to be even worse than the past. Gripping stuff, the more so because this dramaturgy, and Berio's completion, places Puccini firmly in the world of Strauss' Salome (1905) and Elektra (1909), Berg's Wozzeck (completed two years before Turandot in 1922), and Busoni's also unfinished Doktor Faust (1924). Puccini was, after all, largely a 20th century composer, all his most famous operas except Manon Lescaut and La Bohème date from 1900 onwards. He was encouraged as to the more heroic possibilities of the soprano voice after attending performances of Salome, Elektra and indeed Die Frau ohne Schatten. Just one sign among many that he was a composer still developing as a dramatic artist.

This impressive staging was the final achievement of iconoclastic German director Nikolaus Lehnhoff. He sets the action in a large box-like, terracotta-coloured courtyard, a suitably oppressive environment for this violent tale. Visual orientalisms abound, for which we must be thankful, because Puccini's score is as oriental as Madama Butterfly. The costumes by Andrea Schmidt-Futterer are spectacular, they nod appropriately to commedia dell'arte convention, masks abound, but are more satirical and threatening than usual. Turandot herself is in black and looks rather like a spider at the centre of some ghastly enticing web. Ping, Pang and Pong are like sinister Harlequin triplets. Calaf, in a simple but expensive-looking black coat, looks almost normal. The helpless slave-girl Liù and her equally helpless master Timur, Calaf's father, are alone in looking poor in pale, basic servant-style dress. The Mandarin is a like a gigantic puppet, whose brief appearance high up in the centre of the edifice makes a lasting impression; an impression of utter detachment from reality. At the end of Act 1 Calaf declares his challenge by banging on the not very gong-like palace door, whilst the percussionist in the pit strikes a proper gong.

Key to the success of this, or any, production is the singing. Nina Stemme hits all the high notes with ferocious and fearless accuracy, as does Aleksandrs Antonenko in the role of Calaf. Every role is sung superbly well. Riccardo Chailly, the best conductor La Scala could possibly have for this new version, because he has directed it before, has an iron grip on proceedings. The orchestra and chorus are excellent. The audience was either unusually well behaved, or the video editor's scissors have been busy, because no clapping and cheering is to be heard during the acts, a blessing for dramatic continuity.

Video quality is crystal clear, camera-work is subtle and effective and the sound up to the high standards we are usually blessed with from Blu-ray. When the audience do finally make their presence felt they are behind and beside the listener. One is tempted to join in. The disc has been produced with the usual disgraceful disregard for musical values, using Puccini's score as musical wallpaper behind the menus and the credits. Fortunately one has a mute button.

Dave Billinge



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