The Callas Turandot revisited

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A short while ago I listened to the Mehta and Karajan recordings of Puccini’s last opera, both of which have a great deal to commend them, though the Mehta is the most obvious recommendation, with a superb cast headed by Sutherland, who is surprisingly convincing in what is surely an uncharacteristic role. The Mehta is the recording I usually recommend to anyone wanting a single recording of Turandot.

I then decided to revisit the Callas recording, which I hadn’t listened to in quite some time. Now common opinion (and memory) tells us that Callas, having recorded the role of Turandot a little late in her career, is wobbly and vocally unstable, that Schwarzkopf is out of her element, Fernandi a complete non-entity, Serafin reliable but uninspired and the mono recording not up to the demands of this aurally spectacular opera.

Well memory, and therefore common opinion, turned out to be rather faulty on this occasion.

In one respect, that regarding the recording, memory was correct. The mono sound is boxy and this, of all operas, cries out for the kind of aural spectacular we get in the Mehta and Karajan performances. It is a great shame for the performance, led with a wonderfully natural sense of rhythm and balance by Serafin fully deserves a better aural soundscape. The lead up to the finale of the first act is particularly thrilling and Serafin even manages to make much more musical sense of Alfano’s ending, which becomes much less of an anti-climax than usual. However no amount of re-mastering can disguise the fact that the mono sound cannot contain the splendours of the performance.

So what about the singers?

Schwarzkopf might not sound quite Italianate, it is true, but her Liu is gorgeously sung and phrased right from the first moments when she sings that breathtaking piano top note on Perché un dì…nella reggia, mi hai sorriso. . Then in Signore, ascolta, she manages a perfect mesa di voce on the final note, as intrsucted in the score. Another highlight is the little mini aria before Tu che di gel sei cinta, again beautifuly shaded and shaped. It’s a performance full of veiled sighs and tears and I like it very much.

Fernandi, who appears to have done little else on disc, makes much more of an impression than I remembered, with a fine ring to his voice. His phrasing is occasionally a little four square, but, taken on his own terms, it is a thoroughly acceptable performance, if without the personality of a Bjoerling, Corelli or Pavarotti. Zaccaria is a sonorous, warmly sympathetic Timur.

As for Callas, well of course I might have wished that she’d recorded the role even three years earlier, when she sang a vocally resplendent In questa reggia on her Puccini Recital, and certainly there are times when the role is obviously stretching her to her limits, but her voice is a lot more secure than she is usually given credit for, and indeed we’ve heard much wider vibratos and more wobbly singing from many of the singers who have followed, especially from some of the ones who are around now. What we also get is the most psychologically penetrating traversal of Turandot’s psyche as you are likely to hear. This Turandot is not just a mythical creature with splendid top notes, she is a real person. We understand that it is Turandot’s insecurity and fear that make her so cruel. We also understand why so many princes could have fallen under her spell. One might argue that Turandot is after all just a fairy tale, and doesn’t require such a degree of psychological complexity, and it’s certainly a valid point. However I, for one, find the insights Callas brings to the role make it so much more interesting.

So, in all but matters of sound, I would call this a great Turandot.

If anyone is interested you can read my original review of the set here.