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Giacomo Puccini: Turandot

A review from Gramophone, September 1987

This vintage recording of Turandot is remarkable for at least two classic performances, those of Birgit Nilsson as the icy Princess, an incomparable exponent in her generation, and of Jussi Bjorling as Calaf, singing as headily as ever only months before he died in 1960. For those unique interpretations, and also for Renata Tebaldi's beautiful if generalized rendering of Liu's part, this CD transfer is very welcome, but there are too many other reservations for more than a qualified recommendation to be given.

The first is that RCA's digital remastering makes the sound fierce and fizzy. The orchestra is so edgy and bright, with heavy brass sound particularly disagreeable, that sustained listening is uncomfortable, while the voices—the chorus included—are presented in boxy sound with no feeling of a real acoustic, a point which the clarity and precision of CD underlines. The original LPs were never remarkable for hi-fi sound, but a far more sensitive transfer than this should have been possible. The accompanying booklet provides the libretto and details of the separate tracks—14 on the first disc, 19 on the second—but no background information on what is after all a historic recording, let alone any notes about the opera itself. As a further illustration of the inadequate presentation the title-page promises—as the LP set did—an essay, The Riddle of Turandot by George R. Murek, but then fails to include it.

Erich Leinsdorf was rarely at his best recording opera in Rome for RCA, and though Turandot can stand up to his rough, unaffectionate treatment better than most Puccini, this performance is marred more than most by sluggish speeds and heavy rhythmic control. It is only fair to point out that Bjorling in "Nessun dorma" seems to want to go even slower than Leinsdorf—something he masters with ease and consistent purity of tone—but only Leinsdorf is responsible for the failure of the closing scene of Act 1 to take off, when there is little or no surging ahead in the passage leading up to Calaf's beating of the gong. Instructively in Act 2 after the riddles a comparably leaden approach is suddenly given life when Nilsson enters, grasping the performance and through her individual imagination giving it life and compulsion. Even so, for all the command of Nilsson's singing, I have always preferred her performance in the later EMI version under Molinari-Pradelli (on LP only). One point to note in this performance after Nilsson's searingly incisive singing in the greater part of the opera, is the element of tenderness she finds in the arioso "Del primo pianto", in the Alfano Conclusion.


Please notice that this is a review of the old remastering. The new one (see details) has excellent sound. It also includes the essay. -J.T.-


Turandot: Birgit Nilsson
Calaf: Jussi Björling
Liù: Renata Tebaldi
Timur: Giorgio Tozzi
Ping: Mario Sereni
Pang: Piero de Palma
Pong: Tommaso Frascati
Emperor: Alessio de Paolis
Mandarin: Leonardo Monreale
Prince of Persia: Adelio Zagonara

Rome Opera Chorus and Orchestra
Erich Leinsdorf

RCA 62687


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