Two Turandots

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Not having listened to this set for some time, it was good to be reminded that it certainly justifies its reputation. I even found the Ping Pang Pong episodes less irritating than I usually do.

Sutherland seemed strange casting at the time (and she never sang the role on stage) but it’s a casting decision that definitely paid off. Her diction is better here than it usually is, though she doesn’t make as much of the text as Callas does. On the other hand, by the time Callas came to record the complete role in 1957, she couldn’t disguise the strain the role made on her resources. (Too bad she didn’t record it a few years earlier, when she recorded a stunningly secure, and subtly inflected version of In questa reggia for her Puccini recital.) Anyway for my money, Sutherland has much more vocal allure in the role than Nilsson, and surely Turandot has to have allure if one is to make any sense at all out of the plot.

Pavarotti is caught at his mid career best and Caballé sings beautifully, spinning out her fabulous pianissimi to glorious effect. If I’m absolutely honest, I prefer a slightly lighter voice in the role, like, say, Moffo, Freni, Scotto or Hendricks, who is the Liu of the Karajan set reviewed below. Caballé sounds as if she could sing Turandot, which indeed she did, but there’s no doubting her class, even if there is something of the grande dame about her. The rest of the cast is superb and Mehta conducts a splendidly dramatic and viscerally beautiful version of the score. On balance, it’s probably still the best recording of the opera around.

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It was interesting then to turn to Karajan’s 1981 digital set, and this, I would say, is definitely the conductor’s opera. Sonically it is absolutely gorgeous. Karajan’s speeds tend to the spacious, allowing him to reveal beauties in the orchestration I’d never heard before, not even in the superb Mehta.

When it comes to the cast, Barbara Hendricks’s Liu sounds just right, a lovely lyric soprano, perfectly suited to the demands of the role, as she was when J heard her sing the role in concert at the Barbican. By contrast Caballé sounds too grand, Schwarzkopf too much the Princess Werdenberg, though both of them sing divinely. Domingo makes a most interesting, more psychologically complex Calaf than Pavarotti, but I do miss Pavarotti’s ringing top notes. Domingo is taxed by the upper reaches of the part.

The set’s biggest stumbling block however remains Ricciarelli. Truth to tell, this time round I didn’t find her casting quite as disastrous as I once thought. A most intelligent and musical singer, she adapts the role to suit her basically lyric soprano. She sings the opening of In questa reggia with a white, vibrato-less sound which is most effective, but she can’t really disguise the fact that, even in the recording studio, her voice is a couple of notches too small. As I intimated above, she has to use all her intelligence to survive the role’s treacherous demands, where Sutherland sounds as if she was born to sing it, and the Mehta remains a much safer choice.

This set is certainly worth hearing though for Karajan’s superb realisation of the score, for Hendricks’s wonderful Liu, and, apart from at the very top of the voice, Domingo’s musical Calaf.

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.

Callas sings Puccini Arias

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Recorded 15-18, 20-21 September 1954, Watford Town Hall, London

Producer: Walter Legge, Balance Engineer: Robert Beckett

This is the first recital record I ever owned , and for some time the only recital record I owned. As such it has quite a lot of sentimental value for me. Most of the music was new to me at that time and I played it constantly. I got to know it so well that I can even now listen without libretto and mime the words. However, as I got older, my tastes changed. I got to love the music of Verdi, Bellini and Donizetti. I felt Callas’s gifts were wasted on Puccini, and so my first love got rather pushed aside. I tended not to listen to this recital quite so often.

To listen to it again now, in this fantastic new re-mastering from Warner (one almost feels as if Callas were in the room with you), was a moving experience and, from the first note, she had me riveted.

Most Puccini recitals tend to the samey, but Callas presents us with a different voice character in each opera. Of the roles represented here, she had at that time only sung Turandot on stage, though she would go on to sing Butterfly in Chicago in 1955. She also went on to record complete performances of Madama Butterfly, La Boheme, and Manon Lescaut, as well as Turandot (though a little too late in her career.

As usual Callas is the mistress of vocal characterisation. Manon, Butterfly, Mimi, Angelica, Lauretta, Liu and Turandot all emerge as completely different characters, but, even within a single aria, she can reveal some hidden depth within the character. Manon, tenderly regretful in In quelle trine moribide, gives way to passion and despair in Sola perduta abbandonata, a despair already hinted at in her voicing of un freddo che m’agghiaccia in the first aria. Butterfly’s wistful imagining of the return of Pinkerton is brilliantly charted, her death scene almost unbearably intense. Mimi is shy and withdrawn, but the warmth which Callas brings to the Ma quando vien lo sgelo section reveals Mimi’s capacity for selfless love.  Angelica’s resigned sadness gives way to a surprisingly sweet and cajoling Lauretta.

Quite the biggest contrast comes when she sings both Liu and Turandot. Liu’s arias are sung feelingly, but possibly with a bit too much muscle, and the ending of Signore ascolta doesn’t eclipse memories of Caballe or Schwarzkopf in the same piece, but Turandot’s In questa reggia is surely one of the best ever recorded. Callas at this time still had the power and security on top to ride its high-lying phrases; and please note she actually sings the words Gli enigmi sono tre on the phrase that takes her up to a top C. Most sopranos, Eva Turner included, reduce them to a vocalise. Furthermore the aria is filled with little details overlooked by most; the almost mystical way she launches the section beginning Principessa Lou-u- Ling, singing with mounting ardour until she vocally points her finger at Calaf with the phrase Un uomo como te. Almost regretful on the section O principe che a lunghe carovane, she strengthens her resolve again at io vendico su voi till her voice cries out with conviction at quell grido e quella morte. Would that she had recorded her complete Turandot at the same time. This is the greatest prize on the recital.

The one uncomfortable moment I remember from the recital (Angelica’s final floated high A) for some reason sounds far less wobbly here than it ever did before, and the voice in this re-mastering has enormous presence. Serafin, as ever, provides invaluable support.

A classic of the gramophone.

Callas as Turandot

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Recorded 9-13, 15 July 1957, Teatro alla Scala, Milan

Producers: Walter Legge and Walter Jellinek, Balance Engineer: Robert Beckett

1957 started well for Callas. She made two of her best recordings (Il Barbiere di Siviglia and La Sonnambula) and had a huge success as Anna in Anna Bolena at La Scala. The Iphigenie en Taurdie which followed may have been more of a succès d’estime but, though her colleagues were decidedly under par, she was superb and in good voice, as she was when La Scala took their production of La Sonnambula to Cologne in Germany.

She then records two operas far less suited to her gifts (Turandot and Manon Lescaut), goes on to sing a concert in Athens, when she is decidedly not in her best voice, sings Amina again with the La Scala company in Edinburgh, where she sounds thoroughly exhausted, and then  compounds the problem by recording Medea. The cracks are definitely beginning to show. After a few week’s rest, she is back on form for a Dallas Opera Inaugural concert (or appears to be on a recording of the rehearsal), and finishes the year well with a stupendous performance of Amelia in Un Ballo in Maschera at La Scala.

Turandot figured quite heavily in Callas’s early career. In 1948 and 1949 she sang it in Venice, Rome Caracalla, Genoa, Verona, Naples and Buenos Aires. She once said in interview that she dropped it as soon as she could, “because it’s not really good for the voice, you know.” All that exists from any of these performances are a couple of short extracts from the Buenos Aires performance, in which her voice is massive and free-wheeling, as far as one can tell through the execrable sound. By 1957 her voice has considerably pared down, and one might wish that she had recorded the role even a few years earlier when she sings a vocally secure and thoroughly commanding version of In questa reggia on the Puccini recital of 1954.

That said, I find the voice less wobbly and ill-supported than I do in the Manon Lescaut, which followed, on which, to my ears, she sounds exhausted, for all her customary musical imagination and insights. She is more secure in this Turandot but she doesn’t really disguise the effort it costs her. Where Nilsson and Sutherland, and Eva Turner before them, soar, Callas is more earth bound. That said, she makes a psychologically more complex heroine than any of them, her singing more subtly layered than we have come to expect from a Turandot. Hear how she vocally points the finger at Calaf in In questa reggia when she sings Un uomo come te, the almost mystical recounting of the story of Lou-u-ling. The first signs of Turandot’s vulnerability come in the Riddle Scene, anxiety creeping into her voice at Si la speranza che delude sempre, and her pleading to her father is almost in the voice of Butterfly, suddenly a daughter trying to get round her father. There are signs of her vulnerability too in the brief scene with Liu, when she asks,  Che posa tanta forza nel tuo core, mirroring Liu’s response with her repetition of the word L’amore. Even the last scene is less of an anti-climax than it usually is. When she sings Che e mai di me? Perduta, we know that she is conquered, and her final aria Del primo pianto is sung with a wealth of detail. For all the evident strain the role makes on her resources, it is a great performance, and she is far less stressed by its demands than Ricciarelli is on Karajan’s recording.

The rest of the cast is interesting. Many have opined that Schwarzkopf sounds as if she had wandered in from the wrong opera, but I like her finely nuanced and beautifully shaded Liu. She is particularly impressive in her exchanges with Turandot and in the mini aria Tanto amore, effecting a wonderful diminuendo on the line Ah come offerta suprema del mio amore. What a pity this is the only time the two most intelligent sopranos of the post war period ever sang together. Fernandi, a strange choice considering he was very little known at the time, and hardly at all since, is rather better than his lack of reputation suggests. Not as exciting as a Corelli (why on earth was he not engaged?) he nevertheless sings a valid Calaf, often phrasing with distinction. Not the best Calaf on record certainly, but not the worst either. Zaccaria is a sympathetic presence as Timur, Ping, Pang and Pong all characterful. There is also a connection with the first ever performance as Nessi, who sings the Emperor, created the role of Pang.

Serafin’s conducting is excellent, urgent and well-paced. What a pity that he doesn’t have the benefit of modern stereo sound, which this of all operas really cries out for. The sound here is, to my ears anyway, less boxy than the sound for Manon Lescaut, though it is not as open as, say, the De Sabata Tosca, which was recorded four years earlier. This Warner pressing sounds a good deal better than my 1997 Callas Edition, with Callas’s voice far less shrill in the upper reaches. It may never be anyone’s library choice for the opera, but I would not want to be without the insights Callas brings to the role. It is, in many respects, a more thoughtful rendering of the score than we often hear.