COMO PUCCINI: Turandot, Birgit Nilsson, Renata Tejussi Bjoeriling, Giorgio Tozzi
Turandot differs from Puccini's
There are three fairly distinct types of characters and music in the work: the super-heroes, Calaf and Turandot, who sing extremely high, barbarically exciting melodies; the pathetic educators, Liu and Timur, who are alloted simple, quite moving themes reminiscent of earlier Puccini; the commentators, the chorus and Turandot's amusing Chancellor, Ping, Pang and Pong, whose music abruptly shifts from lyric to comic to barbaric. Calaf and Turandot are conceived as opposing extremes. Calaf, the epitome of virility, is adventurous, aggressive, passionate and egocentric. The princess, frigidity personified, is similarly egocentric, but she is fearful of change, defensive and seemingly devoid of emotion. This split is emphasized metaphorically by the identification of Calaf with dawn and life and Turandot with the moon, night and death. As can be seen, the libretto and music alike have been worked out in every detail.
Some of those who adore the early, sentiment-laden Puccini operas, have decided that Turandot is an "insincere" work. The super-heros are accused of inhuman conduct--which was precisely what Puccini had intended. (In one of his many letters to Giuseppe Adami, the librettist, Puccini had called Calaf and Turandot "almost super-human beings.") However, their inhuman conduct was to become humanized through Liu's example. Calaf's cruel desertion of Liu and Timur and Turandot's vicious behavior towards her subjects and suitors alike was not condoned by Puccini. During the final duet (the part he never completed), the composer intended Calaf and Turandot "to descend through love to the level of mankind." They would at times echo Liu's touchingly simple music. Her sacrifice would not have been in vain. But, at the same time, through the sheer excitement of this last duet, the audience would not regret this sacrifice, but instead would realize that the grand love of Calaf and Turandot required Liu's death. Her demise was not pathetic but necessary. As it stands now, Alfano's cheap music for this scene is just as brazen (and far less exciting) than the second act riddle scene between Turandot and Calaf. They seem not to have changed at all. The final duot, if Puccini had written it, would no doubt have righted this weakness in the opera's construction.
Though Puccini intended the super-heroes to become more human, he wrote some magnificent super-music for the first two acts which depict them in their over-sized stature.
Other dissenters have told me that they cannot listen to Turadot because its Chinese elements, especially in the comic trios of Ping, Pang and Pong, sound so silly. But the cheapness of the chancellors' music is often intentionally used as a parodic foil for the genuine ardor of Calaf and most of the other Chinese effects are designed to underscore the various processions in the work. In stage presentation, the pageantry obscures the flaw.
It is not RCA's fault if I consider seeing Turandot preferable to listening to their recording. The album does honor to Turandot. But Puccini's brazen, vivid score sounds best in the opera house--regardless of what high fidelity experts may claim. Furthermore, in a great opera like this, much of the music's power comes from its relation to the mise on scene.
Turandot, like many operatic showpieces, is only worth doing when extraordinarily agile and durable voices can be found to cope with the music's demands. RCA has found such voices. Birgit Nilsson is just about perfect in the title role; perhaps her Turandot even surpasses her thrilling Isolde. Her complete mastery of the extremely high tessitura and lengthy phrases is joined to a subtle depiction of Turandot's change from imperiousness to docility.
As Timur, Giorgio Tozzi brings so much sincerity to the part that I can only regret that he did not perform in the Metropolitan revival which I saw a few weeks ago. In his beautiful scene after the death of Liu, Tozzi evokes Timur's peculiar mixture of frustrated power and deep affection with especial effectiveness. Renata Tebaldi has recorded Liu once before, for a London release, and time seems to have lessened the appropriateness of her great voice for this role. Today, she sounds more like a dramatic Verdian heroine, than a pitiful slavo girl. But her extremely sensitive phrasing is here as apparent and as welcome as ever.
This album features Jussi Bjoerling's penultimate recorded performance. From it, we are all the more aware that this great Swedish tenor died when he still was near the top of his form. His battle of high notes with Turandot at the end of their last duet (itself the one truly exciting moment in Alfano's scoring) is a most extraordinary display of vocal power. His lyric rendition of much of the first act music makes his Calaf more sympathetic and more credible than any other I have heard.
Erich Leinsdorf elicits a stirring performance from the Rome Opera House Orchestra. The somewhat slow tempi he chose for the first act arias of Liu and Calaf seems to have proved a bit difficult even for Bjoerling and Tebaldi to sustain. But certainly the finale of that act becomes more effective at that pace. The Rome Opera House Chorus is positively magnificent; even their highest-lying passages in the second and third acts seem to pose no problem for them.
The Metropolitan is bringing its sumptuous revival of Turandot to Boston this spring--with Nilsson, France Corelli, a great new Calaf, Anna Moffo as Liu, and Tozzi in his first performance as Timur. If it is at all possible that any seats still remain, snap them up: It will prove--I am absolutely sure--an unforgettable evening. However, if you discover that others have beaten you to it, console yourself by obtaining this recording. It, too, has its unforgettable moments.