Turandot


TurandotGiacomo Puccini - Turandot

Arena di Verona 2010 | Giuliano Carella, Franco Zeffirelli, Maria Guleghina, Carlo Bosi, Luiz-Ottavio Faria, Salvatore Licitra, Tamar Iveri, Leonardo Lòpez Linares, Gianluca Bocchino, Saverio Fiore, Giuliano Pelizon, Angel Harkatz Kaufman | BelAir Classiques

It’s not as if there is a gap in the market for yet another performance of Turandot, with there being a few versions already out on Blu-ray, and even one that uses the same Franco Zeffirelli production recorded here at the Arena di Verona in 2010. Taking advantage perhaps of Decca’s recall of their Zeffirelli production of Turandot at the Metropolitan Opera in New York due to a fault with the English subtitles, BelAir’s release is a timely one that comes out in the gap before the Met reissue. There’s certainly room in anyone’s collection for another version of Puccini’s final masterpiece, but perhaps not yet another one of this production.

Recorded at the huge stage in the Roman arena at Verona at least gives Zeffirelli quite a bit more scope and an impressive location for the sumptuous sets for this fairy-tale opera. The Met production isn’t exactly understated, but here at Verona, the director can at least double the number of supernumeraries, have room for acrobatics and Chinese parade dragons, but bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better (although try telling Franco Zeffirelli that!). Attempting to fill the stage with people could be seen as making things a little more cluttered, but – provided you don’t have an aversion to Zeffirelli glittery gold extravagance – it does at least give sets like the Royal Palace an appropriate sense of grandeur.

Where there’s room for improvement over the Met version of this classic production – not much, as it’s very good, but just a little in one or two areas – is in the singing. Blow for blow however, there’s not much to choose between the two casts other than personal taste and, perhaps more significantly, the impact of the acoustics on the respective recordings. Maria Guleghina is Turandot on both versions, and here – whether it’s through trying to project to a bigger arena, I’m not sure – she sounds a little shrill and strained in her riddle duel with Calaf, but she’s not perfect on the Met recording either. She does however come through with great regal presence and drama towards the conclusion. Tamar Ivéri sings Liù very well indeed, and I’d be happy with her performance if I didn’t still have Marina Poplavskaya’s deeply emotional performance and unique tone fresh in my mind. Salvatore Licitra is a fine Calaf, but his voice doesn’t always carry and he certainly doesn’t sustain his high notes on Nessun Dorma, although he gives it another worthy effort in an encore (this is Verona and the principal aim is one of popular crowd-pleasing), but he performs reasonably well considering the challenges of the outdoor arena setting.

Ultimately, it’s the occasion and the acoustics of the Arena di Verona that make the difference here at least as far as the singing is concerned. The acting is perhaps turned up a notch to project to the arena and performers all make use of discreet microphones, which means that it doesn’t consequently have the same natural ambience of a traditional theatrical production. If the Met production has the edge then in this regard, the Verona recording has other aspects to recommend. The setting and the occasion are impressive alone, but the performance of the orchestra under Giuliano Carella is also noteworthy and has great presence in both the LPCM Stereo and the DTS HD-Master Audio 7.1 sound mixes.

In all other respects, the same qualities that can be found in the Met’s production also work here. The settings and arrangements fully capture the fairy-tale scale of the opera, but the direction sensitively brings out an appropriate sense of the nature of the characters as expressed though the libretto and in what Turandot’s riddles tell us about the respective personalities involved and how love arises from them. Most importantly, Zeffirelli’s production is perfectly in accordance with the tone of Puccini’s fascinating Oriental-inflected score, and the sense of occasion that the Arena di Verona lends it.

The quality of the Blu-ray release from BelAir is quite good, through not perfect. There is good detail in the image and strong colouration that captures the full glory of the production, but the encoding isn’t the best and movements aren’t the smoothest. This will probably vary according to individual systems however. The audio mixes in LPCM and DTS HD-Master Audio 7.1 are both good, allowing finer detail to be heard in the orchestral the arrangements, and covering the singing reasonably well considering the acoustics and use of attached mics. I didn’t however particularly note any extra dynamic on the surround mix. There are no extra features on the disc, and only a detailed synopsis and credits in the enclosed booklet.

TurandotGiacomo Puccini - Turandot

Metropolitan Opera, New York, 2009 | Andris Nelsons, Franco Zeffirelli, Maria Guleghina, Marcello Giordani, Marina Poplavskaya, Samuel Ramey, Charles Anthony, Joshua Hopkins, Tony Stevenson, Eduardo Valdes | Decca

It wouldn’t be entirely accurate to say that Turandot is an underrated opera, but its most famous aria, ‘Nessun Dorma’, has tended to overshadow the other qualities that the work has to offer. Puccini’s final opera (the last scene completed after his death by Franco Alfano) also has more to it than a superficial look at the fairy-tale nature of the story – based on a work by the 18th century Venetian dramatist Carlo Gozzi – might suggest, or indeed the exotic Oriental inflections of the opera’s music score. Turandot actually contains some of Puccini’s finest musical compositions, the composer bringing his considerable talent to bear on the overall structure and arrangement, while also finding – as he always does – beautiful melodies that express a depth of emotion and character that one might not expect to find in the piece.

There’s a human heart in the story of a cruel princess, Turandot, who demands that anyone seeking her hand in marriage must first give the answer to three riddles that she sets – and where there’s a human heart, few are as expressive as Giacomo Puccini. Despite the consequence of failure being beheading, many noble princes have tried and failed to answer the riddles set by Turandot, and the deaths of so many have cast a long and bloody stain on the Emperor’s reign and despair on the people of his kingdom. An unknown prince however is determined to take his chance, despite the dangers, despite the warnings from the royal court, and despite the pleas of those closest to him, one of whom is Liu, a slave girl who is in love with him.

Puccini sets up the nature of this situation beautifully in Act 1, capturing the full range of the conflicting sentiments of each of the main players, and if the actual staging of the riddle contest in Act 2 is less than perfectly arranged, it’s an occasion for a terrific duel of singing voices between the soprano and the tenor. Although it seems like we have to wait until Act 3 to fully understand what is at stake (and get Nessun Dorma), there are nonetheless hints to the nature of the characters and the conflicting issues between them in the answers to the riddles. It’s hope that lies within Calef, but it is due to die at dawn, his answers to the riddles having failed to melt the burning ice of Turandot, and it’s only through the blood of Liu that the situation is resolved and the true nature of love is revealed. If this doesn’t quite add up to full character development, the beauty of Puccini’s musical arrangements makes up the difference. The Oriental touches are not merely pastiche either – Puccini seems to understand the nature of this foreign and discordant music and the sentiments that lie within it, and he meaningfully and skilfully weaves it into his score to great effect.

Franco Zeffirelli’s lavish production for The Met could also be accused of extravagance, kitsch and overstatement, but in reality it’s perfectly in keeping with the tone and the nature of Puccini’s drama. Zeffirelli’s huge sets capture the grandness of the occasion, the decadence of the royal court and the magical qualities of the fairy-tale nature of the subject, but it also pays attention to the details in the costume design, as well as in the position of the characters within the sets and in relation to one another. Those qualities are also borne out in the performance of the Metropolitan Orchestra conducted by Andris Nelsons, who grasp the full force and dymanic of this extraordinary opera, and in the singing performances from a fine cast. Guleghina and Giordani play well together and rise to the exceptional demands of their roles, but it’s Marina Poplavskaya who positively shines as Liu. Poplavskaya can sometimes be a little inconsistent and out of her depth in certain roles, but she has a great emotional quality in her voice and it comes through here brilliantly. In every respect this production is just magnificent – there’s no other word for it.

The Blu-ray release from Decca has an unfortunate fault with the English subtitles – at least on the initial batch of copies. English subtitles are a full 37 seconds out of sync with the voices, though they seem fine on the other languages (I got by on French). The subs work fine if you access Act 3 directly from the chapter menu (if you want to get to Nessun Dorma, for example), but they cannot be made to synchronise for any of the other acts through this method. It’s a pity, because in all other respects, this is a superb High Definition presentation of the Met’s 2009 Live in HD recording that brings out the full colourful glory of Zeffirelli’s production, and packs a punch on the HD sound mixes. The recording keeps the same format as the HD Live broadcasts, introduced here by Patricia Racette, who also conducts interviews with Maria Guleghina, Marcello Giordani, and Charles Anthony during the interval between Act 2 and 3.