Thursday, November 21, 2013


I don't know why it took me so long to appreciate the 78 set (Cetra, 1938). Yes, the sound is antique. But Gina Cigna commands Turandot's Hippodrome vocal line as few can, Francesco Merli (one of the  Calafs in the opera's first La Scala season) is impetuous and heroic, and Franco Ghione conducts most stylishly. Was I disappointed in the Liu, Magda Olivero? I'd seen her on stage, a mesmerizing Adriana Lecouvreur, Fedora, and Tosca. But Liu isn't a mesmerizing part. She's a teenaged slave with no cultural breadth, musically speaking a pure lyric soprano of the most basic emotionalism. Then, too, the set cuts Turandot's all-important review of how she changed from hating men to loving Calaf, "Del Primo Pianto." Anyway, whatever my reasons, I now think of this performance as what Italians call molto valido, meaning quite good if not brilliant.

Though born in France, Gina Cigna was Italian, but Turandots tend to come from the North. So Inge Borkh played her for Decca, in 1955, with Mario del Monaco and Renata Tebaldi, presciently recorded in stereo though first released only in mono (because nobody had stereo playback equipment in 1955). Though not generally admired, this is a wonderful set, not least in the conducting of the overlooked Alberto Erede. And Decca's engineers really got all the orchestra detail into one's speakers as they didn't have to with the more ordinary scoring of an Aida or Andrea Chenier. Del Monaco is his usual rowdy self, but Calaf is pretty rowdy in the first place, jetting from reason to obsession and from tenderness to fury without transition. Tebaldi is at her best despite the part's limitations, for Liu really is a one-note character. The problem here is Borkh. She's got the voice, in her more or less constipated Germanic vocal production, but she never soars.

Even Maria Callas (EMI) fails to distinguish herself (except in "Del Primo Pianto," when the opera is virtually over), though she had sung the part on stage years before. One thinks of a great Norma--which Callas was--being a shoo-in as Turandot, but the roles are widely divergent, not because Norma has a coloratura line to maintain as well as dramatic power, but because Puccini's orchestra-and-chorus setting is vast compared to that of Bellini. The proportions of sound are different. Further, Turandot often has to dialogue expansively in the upper register whereas Norma's high lines generally slip down to the middle voice fairly quickly. Consider: Beverly Sills and Renata Scotto were able to sing Norma; they could not possibly have gotten through Turandot.

EMI's opera chief, Walter Legge, disdained theatricality; he even resisted stereo as a vulgarity, so, two years after Decca taped in stereo, EMI is trapped in mono and, even remastered on CD, lacks the percussive punctuation that magics the piece up with opera's equivalent of the CGI effects in science-fiction movies. Yes, the gongs, xylophone, and so on are there. But they don't resound. Tullio Serafin's conducting is always praised, but the sonics obviously put him at a disadvantage, and the Calaf, Eugenio Fernandi, was one of the first of the postwar "too much too soon" casualties. His lyric instrument strains to keep up; Calaf is really just a shorter Otello. True, Fernandi rises to the optional high C in the Riddle Scene. Still, the air of a balladeer in Ivanhoe's armor is inescapable. I saw Fernandi in an Aida in New Jersey near the close of a tattered career; in "Celeste Aida," just before the last note, a high B flat, Fernandi suddenly cried, "Maestro, non posso piu!" as if he were Liu getting tortured, and fled the  stage. (Unlike Roberto Alagna more recently, at La Scala, Fernandi promptly came back.)

What's odd about the Callas Turandot is that its Liu is both miscast and the best thing in it. It's Legge's wife, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, so established as the ultimate Kunstdiva of the finely etched Lied, the super-inflected character study, that the very timbre of her voice threatens to present the song stylings of Hugo Wolf. Schwarzkopf sings very beautifully, and, as always, devises unique line readings. Her "piutosto morro" (I'd rather die) just before "Tanto Amore, Segreto" is wondrous; for once we realize that Liu isn't just a victim of circumstance but the driver of the plot resolution, determined to enlighten the apparently affectless Princess on the animating wonder of love, then to die for it.

But that's the problem: we expect not a knowing but a na├»ve Liu, just as we believe Turandot should be a termagant, with--says Italian opera critic Rodolfo Celletti in Il Teatro d'Opera in Disco--"a pinch of sadism" and "sounds of power, convulsion, tearing, strangling." That doesn't suggest Joan Sutherland, the Princess of the 1973 Decca reading, with Luciano Pavarotti, Montserrat Caballe, and Nicolai Ghiaurov under Zubin Mehta. However, Sutherland did command an extremely ample instrument; first-timers at a Sutherland performance at the Met were invariably shocked that a Lucia and Gilda so filled the house with tone. We should say as well that Mehta makes the most of Puccini's percussive glitter; once again, Decca's engineers did a beautiful job in catching it all. And Pavarotti, unlike other lyric Calafs, is comfortably ecstatic and quite grand, with a stupendous tenuto on that optional high C, the best one on disc.

In fact, the performance is a great one, and you hear it two minutes into the continuity, when Calaf stumbles into his father and Liu. It's an extremely innovative scene, as operas of this kind favored Entrances for their leads--think of the way Musetta, Scarpia, Butterfly, and Minnie (to keep to Puccini's characters) appear. Or Turiddu or Paolo in Francesca da Rimini. However, Timur and Liu don't Enter: we pick them out of the crowd commotion, and then some guy is suddenly embracing Timur--ha! it's Calaf, though we don't hear his name till five minutes before the final curtain--and the three of them start giving us the opera's expository scene while remaining totally in character. That is, they don't say anything they wouldn't be saying to each other, at that moment, in exactly the way they say it. The realism rivals Clifford Odets--and Puccini was not always so suave in getting essential points across. Again, think of Tosca, also two minutes into the continuity, when the tenor also recognizes the bass. But in Tosca, he gives the audience a heads up: "Angelotti! Il Console della spenta repubblica romana!" (Which amounts to, roughly, "Oh, that's the former chief of the democratic entity of Rome, overthrown by fascists, and I'm a democrat, too, so I'm going to get into big trouble very soon!") This is librettospeak, telling not what the character would say but what the audience has to hear to keep its place in the action. In Turandot, however, Calaf has been separated from his father and he doesn't know who Liu is, so their "who what where and when" conversation, while feeding the public necessary information, is utterly naturalistic. I've always felt that, if this offbeat scenelet pops, you're in for an unusual Turandot, and this set qualifies all the way through. Perhaps it's because Mehta's tempos are a hair faster than everyone else's, keeping the cast on its toes. Or because Sutherland conquers the uncongenial character by rooting her in not Wagnerian skyriders but the bel canto heroine. Rodolfo Celletti thought Sutherland's "fragility is the psychological identity of her Turandot"--that she is, as she says, the reincarnation of the "sweet and serene" Lo-u-Ling. Celletti found Sutherland not unequal to but innovative in the role--and she does get off a wrathful "La speranza che delude sempre" (Hope, that always disappoints) after the first riddle.

Caballe attained to the title role for EMI with another lyric tenor, Jose Carreras, and, one would think, the ideal Liu in Mirella Freni. But the set is as disappointing as hope is--and what are we to say of Herbert von Karajan's version (DG, 1981), with Freni as Turandot? Okay, it's not Freni, but it is a lyric soprano, Katia Ricciarelli. At first, she seems surprisingly able, pointing up the opening of "In Questa Reggia" with a pensive, regretful nostalgia. Then the bold high lines cut in and Ricciarelli struggles. By the aria's end, when she has to sing the same notes on "L'enigmi sono tre" (The riddles are three) as Placido Domingo, Ricciarelli's stringy soprano sounds totally unfit. Paltry, even. From then on, this is Wagner without his Valkyrie.

Yet the set compels for the conducting. This is late von Karajan, with the finesse and the artisanal miking and the emphasis on lush vocalism over theatricality. The first act's choruses are spellbinding here, with vivid readings of "Muoia!" (Let him die!) and "La grazia!" (Mercy!)--yes, from the entire ensemble at once--and the first scene of Act Two, in which, normally, three unimportant singers do nothing for fifteen minutes, is a high point. Of course, von Karajan bans entirely the buffo aspect that is supposed to inform the scene. Italians often refer to Ping, Pang, and Pong as "the masks," because they stem from commedia dell'arte, the world of stereotype character comedy, with the actors in masks that define who they are. In a way, Puccini's trio comes from the same source as the cutups in A Funny Thing Happened On the Way To the Forum. But von Karajan never did have a sense of humor. He does, at least, open up the scene's two standard cuts to reveal pages we almost never hear turned. It's good music, too.

Before we get to Birgit Nilsson and Franco Corelli, the Flagstad and Melchior of a later age, we should consider two excerpts, one of live performances at Covent Garden in 1937, with Eva Turner and Giovanni Martinelli (EMI), two of the biggest voices of the day. Of particular interest is Josephine Barstow's superb reading, with Lando Bartolini, of the final duet in Franco Alfano's original completion (on Opera Finales, Decca). Puccini had died, and his sketches didn't give Alfano enough melody to justify the rather lengthy dialogue, so he had to add in a little Alfano. This infuriated Toscanini, La Scala's music director and CEO in particular of the Turandot premiere, a Puccini memorial. But while Toscanini forced Alfano to authenticate his setting by deleting all music that wasn't Puccini's own, Ricordi rushed the first vocal score into print with Alfano's first ending. Thus it survived, and it even turns up in stagings. Robert Carsen used it in a production in Antwerp in 1992, a novel Turandot all around, with a naked Prince of Persia (not the typical proud royal but a bewildered boy) and no Altoum: just a gigantic chair, his lines voiced by the chorus.

Nilsson made two studio sets (Victor, EMI) and appears in numerous live transcriptions. Her partners vary. Now it's the gleaming yet stodgy Jussi Bjoerling, now Giuseppe di Stefano, another lyric unable to resist this ultimate glamor role. Nevertheless, the Nilsson-Corelli pairing was always electrifying, and I find them at their best at La Scala in 1964 (Myto, Opera d'Oro, Memories), with Galina Vishnyefskaya under Gianandrea Gavazzeni. One reason why is a heady sense of occasion, for the audience is clearly keyed up, and its reactions are as much a part of the show as the performing forces. Vishnyefskaya's "Signore, Ascolta!," most unusually, is as much acted as sung--forcefully, at that--and it stops the show, getting not only an ovation but calls for the bis (an encore). Then, too, the masks' scene, led by veteran buffo Renato Capecchi, brings us back to tradition, Capecchi absurdly rolling his Rs and separating syllables with bite in mock-tragic manner. As the performance progresses, we note that Vishnyefskaya continues to give Liu a kick of aggressiveness the public isn't used to, and while the Timur, Nicola Zaccaria, is no more than a worthy voice--that fascinating first scene always went for nothing in Zaccaria Turandots--this is definitely a performance of occasion.

And that's because the two leads are at their utter best. Rodolfo Celletti  called Nilsson's Turandot "apocalyptic," which is why no opera buff can navigate this work without her; and Corelli, this night, oversings shamelessly, grandstanding on the big lines and caressing his pianissimos as if they were frightened kittens. His "Nessun Dorma!" receives an explosion from the house, and from then on all three principals are working at white-hot intensity. Only the cutting of "Del Primo Pianto" mars the event.

Choose only one? I don't think one can, as the Sutherland set is too good to miss but Nilsson-Corelli is essential opera history. I'd say get both, for this is a work that repays close investigation. Its libretto is outstanding even in the verismo era, one noted for texts so good that they sometimes outclassed the music (as with Mascagni's Il Piccolo Marat). And Puccini, horribly underestimated as an artist, outdoes himself in this work above all. True, the last LP side (so to say) was compiled by another. Still, the version we almost invariably hear is drawn entirely from Puccini's sketches. Toscanini saw to that. The conductor could be petty and stubborn, but he was one human who saw large, and he knew that Puccini represented something irreplaceable in music, in Italy, in civilization. That was why he was so hard on Alfano. Turandot, Toscanini thought, must be completed not as if Alfano had completed it: as if Puccini had completed it.

Some years ago,  I happened to mention to my friend Erick that Verdi was one of the two greatest composers of opera. Erick, to secure an ambiguity, asked, "And Wagner is the other?"

I blew it. I should have said, with an air of surprise, "No, Delibes!"

It was Wagner, of course. But now I think they should broaden the top lineup from two to three and include Puccini as well. The work, the arc, is that splendid.