puccini turandot pristine callas

Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924)
Turandot (1926)
Turandot – Maria Callas (soprano)
The Emperor Altoum – Giuseppe Nessi (tenor)
Timur – Nicola Zaccaria (bass)
Calaf – Eugenio Fernandi (tenor)
Liù – Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (soprano)
Ping – Mario Borriello (baritone)
Pang – Renato Ercolani (tenor)
Pong – Piero de Palma (tenor)
A mandarin – “Giulio Mauri” [actually Nicola Zaccaria] (bass)
The Prince of Persia – Piero de Palma (tenor)
First voice – Elisabetta Fusco (soprano)
Second voice – Pinuccia Perotti (soprano)
Orchestra and Chorus of La Scala, Milan/Tullio Serafin
rec. 1957, La Scala, Milan, Italy
No libretto. Ambient Stereo XR Remastering
Pristine Audio PACO198 [2 CDs: 118]

Many visitors to this site will have been collecting recordings for as many as five decades, perhaps even more. We may have multiple recorded performances of the same work on our shelves, but frequently there will be among them those that have, over the years, attained the kind of status that sets them apart from the others. They may not be our own particular favourites, but it is the accepted view, among collectors as among critics, that they will always be referred to with a kind of awe, their reputation established and inviolate. Erich Kleiber in Mozart’s Figaro might be a good example, but many others come to mind. Kleiber’s son Carlos in Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli in piano concertos by Ravel and Rachmaninov, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf in Strauss’s Four Last Songs, Jacqueline du Pré and John Barbirolli in Elgar’s Cello Concerto, Benjamin Britten conducting the War Requiem: they all have, I think, ‘iconic’ status, however much one might disapprove of the word in this context. One of the most celebrated of all such recordings is surely Maria Callas and Tito Gobbi in Tosca, recorded with La Scala forces in 1953. Four years later, the team returned to La Scala to immortalise Callas in the role of Turandot.

This performance has appeared in several guises over the years, and has been picked over by the great, the good, and the not so good of music criticism. On MusicWeb International, it has received considerable attention of those more learned in the subject than I am. (Just search for Puccini Callas La Scala Turandot 1957). I came to it with a view relatively unsullied by what others had written, and with an open mind, which however has never quite been able to share the adulation of Maria Callas. Here, then, are my reactions, which are to be taken as just one personal view.

First, the work. I know Turandot well. I first saw it at Covent Garden when I was a student in London in the 1970s. Not only that, but I wrote an essay about it for my tutor, in which I touched upon the fact that Puccini died before completing it; that unenviable task fell to Franco Alfano. I say ‘unenviable’ because the end of the story – where an ice-cold princess who has happily put previous suitors to death suddenly melts and falls blissfully in love with the opera’s hero – is laughably implausible. This is what I wrote when I was 19: ‘Alfano was not a great composer, and it has been said that Puccini was not a great enough composer either, and that death released him from a problem he could not successfully have solved.’ (Ah, the impertinent confidence of youth!) I recommend Lee Denham’s fine survey, a more considered and mature exposé of the work. Let me only say that I love the music, but I cannot abide any of the characters: I find them either weak and spineless or nasty and egocentric. I have a similar opinion of Carmen. But the masterly music does a remarkable job in allowing the listener to sympathise with the characters – up to a point – and to ignore the absurdities of the plot.

I have three other versions of Turandot on my shelves, but I do not pretend to have listened to all three in their entirety in order to write this review. There are wonderful things about all three performances. Birgit Nilsson is a splendidly steely Turandot on RCA Red Seal, recorded in 1959, and Jussi Bjoerling is incomparable as her only successful suitor. I am particularly fond of that recording because it is conducted by Erich Leinsdorf, perhaps unfashionable nowadays but exceptionally fine in Puccini and in late-romantic opera in general; his Salome is my favourite reading of that astonishing masterpiece.

Many opera fans were surprised to learn that Montserrat Caballé was to record Salome, as they were to read of her Turandot, recorded in 1977 in Strasbourg. Hers is perhaps the most detailed reading of the part, with many small interpretative insights, though some may find she elicits too much sympathy! José Carreras is Calaf, and Mirella Freni a touching and convincing Liù, and Alain Lombard conducts. The team might lead one to expect something underpowered and less than idiomatic but the reality rather contradicts that.

The most widely praised Turandot on record is on Decca, recorded in 1972 with Joan Sutherland – another surprising choice – as Turandot and Luciano Pavarotti as Calaf, and conducted by Zubin Mehta. Sutherland is stupendous, icy, but fiery too, and she manages to convince us perhaps more than most that her submission to Calaf at the end of the opera is an event both understandable and inevitable. For many reasons – casting, superb sound, orchestral playing and magnificently idiomatic conducting – this is the recording I would suggest to anyone new to the opera.

The present release has many claims, but is best reserved for those who know the work already and are looking for another view. Callas fans will want it anyway, and will not, I think, be disappointed. A curiosity of the work is that the heroine – if one can describe such a detestable person as a heroine – sings her first notes only when half the opera has already taken place. She appears earlier silently to dispatch an unlucky suitor. And her first real appearance is with her principal aria In questa Reggia. Callas is riveting from the first note onwards, in spite of a little vocal insecurity during the first few bars. One has to acknowledge this problem later in the performance too, although for me the artist’s magnetism more than compensates. Indeed, I have been completely taken by Callas’s assumption of the role, the harshness of it, its complexity, and the tenderness she achieves towards the end.

Eugenio Fernandi sings the one suitor who manages to pierce the princess’s cold heart. That is surprising because his singing has not quite the ringing quality, nor the heroism, of some of the more illustrious names on record. For this listener, however, the sheer beauty of the voice and his refusal to indulge in vocal histrionics is very refreshing. I enjoy his reading very much. The three courtiers – memorably named Ping, Pang and Pong – are very fine, though you would never think they were Chinese. Their moving scene when they evoke their homeland rather lacks, for me at least, much feeling of nostalgia. I was fascinated to hear what Elisabeth Schwarzkopf would make of the role of Liù. Her micromanaged and sometimes rather imperious singing elsewhere made me wonder if she could ever be convincing as a lovelorn slave girl. But I was wrong to doubt: her meticulous and ultra-refined performance gives us as convincing a portrait of an unconvincing character as any other. The remainder of the cast are excellent, though Giuseppe Nessi’s way as the ageing Emperor – the Ricordi score instructs him to sing ‘with the weary voice of a very old man’ – is not to my taste.

Tullio Serafin conducts a fine performance, and though to criticise such a figure is presumptuous, to say the least, I do rather miss Mehta’s drive and impulsiveness. The orchestra plays like heroes. The chorus, a crucial member of the cast, drives the drama onwards and spends as much time on stage as many of the principals. They are outstandingly fine, but they are recessed in the aural picture. That sadly takes away much of the effect of the music Puccini has given them. I have not heard this performance in any of its earlier incarnations, and have no doubt that Andrew Rose has done a fine job in improving the sound. Still, the heavier passages remain constricted, and many details of Puccini’s remarkable and innovative orchestration fail to come through. The end of Act 1 is a particular case in point.

No libretto is provided, but the inner page of the folding CD case carries a fascinating essay by Andrew Rose. It confirms, if confirmation were needed, that no one critic’s point of view can ever be taken as gospel, given that it is, by definition, no more than an expression of personal, if informed, preference.

William Hedley

Previous review: Ralph Moore (April 2023)

Availability: Pristine Classical