Puccini: Turandot / Guleghina, Licitra, Iveri, Carella

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PUCCINI Turandot Giuliano Carella, cond; Maria Guleghina ( Turandot ); Salvatore Licitra ( Calaf ); Tamar Iveri ( Liù ); Luiz-Ottavio Faria ( Timur ); Carlo Bosi ( Emperor ); Leonardo Lòpez Linares ( Ping ); Saverio Fiore ( Pang) ; Gianluca Bocchino ( Pong ); Arena di Verona O & Ch BELAIR BAC 066 (DVD: 128:00); BAC 466 (Blu-ray: 128: 00) Live: Verona 2010

Turandot was Giacomo Puccini’s last opera and one he did not live to finish. He “laid down his pen,” as the expression goes, for the last time after he had finished the music for the death of Liù and the solemn procession during her ritual removal from the stage. Unfortunately for the composer who eventually finished the work, Franco Alfano, Puccini left more than the unfinished manuscript; he left an untenable dramatic situation as well. With the death of Liù there remains a clueless tenor who has apparently been fatuously pursuing the wrong girl all along, and a cruel, unlikeable dramatic soprano, Turandot. These two are finally to come together as a couple and the audience must feel that a celebratory resolution of the opera’s emotional impetus is occurring with this union. Sorry, it just doesn’t happen. Alfano wrote approximately 14 more minutes of pretty good music, certainly nothing that would embarrass Puccini, much of it based on the older composer’s extensive notes, but he could not dispel the anticlimactic pall of this final bit. One or two other composers have rewritten the completion in the decades since, but have fared no better, I’m not at all sure Puccini could have saved the bacon either had he lived longer. So we are left with a congenitally weak conclusion for the opera, but it is a work that contains much superior material elsewhere as well. The aria “Nessun dorma” alone is a small Puccini miracle and rivals or surpasses anything else he wrote for the tenor voice.

This production from the Arena di Verona is a quite traditional one and uses the standard Alfano ending. As I have said in previous reviews, this particular outdoor venue demands spectacular sets and special effects to make up for the less than ideal acoustics and the distance from audience to stage. It gets plenty of glitz and glitter here with a new celebratory production from that master showman, the Cecil B. DeMille of his day, Franco Zeffirelli. The Arena, Turandot, and Zeffirelli are a near-perfect match, and the Italian stage director vindicates the confidence shown in him with this splendid new production. The new sets are ornate, sumptuously colorful, detailed, and properly large. The production employs a large chorus and many extras, all meticulously dressed, to attend and pay homage at Turandot’s father’s impressive Imperial Palace. We get many close-ups, and the crowd in general is doing more natural things than in some other Zeffirelli efforts. I must admit to a guilty secret: I am a closet Zeffirelli fan. His work is always a visual feast even when it may be drawing attention away from the drama and the singing. I’ll take my chances.

This production was to prove somewhat of a swan song for tenor Salvatore Licitra, at least on video. Licitra was to die almost exactly a year later in a motor scooter accident in Sicily, apparently brought on by a cerebral hemorrhage. It is an unfortunate loss to the artistic community when any artist dies prematurely, but particularly so in the already thin ranks of premier operatic tenors. Licitra sings quite well here as Calaf; he even encores “Nessun dorma,” once a big no-no in Italian opera houses. In my estimation Licitra is the pick of the cast, but fails to bring the last ounce of thrilling vocalism that would rank him alongside a Corelli or a Pavarotti in the role. Dramatic soprano Maria Guleghina has begun competing with herself in recordings of Turandot, much like Eva Marton did back in the ’80s and ’90 s (and stage designer/director Zeffirelli is doing as well). This is Guleghina’s third video performance in the role, and there are quite a few audio recordings of her Turandot as well. Here she is in quite good voice and sings cleanly, if a little passionlessly. Her big voice at times has a steely edge, much like Birgit Nilsson in the role, but then much of Turandot’s music is not meant to charm. The Liù of Tamar Iveri is a bit more problematic. She has a heavy vibrato that distracts from the vocal line, and her tone turns edgy when she pushes in her top range. Beginning back with Anna Moffo and even earlier, the singing of Liù has been of a generally high standard in the recorded history of the opera, so to come up a bit short here is unexpected. Luiz-Ottavio Faria as Timur sings solidly, as do the Ping, Pang, and Pong, especially the baritone Ping of Leonardo Lòpez Linares, who acquits himself with distinction. The sound on video from the Arena orchestra is really much better than it has any right to be, as I have noted before. And the chorus sounds very good as well, thanks to the miracles of modern sound reproduction. Thomas Edison would be amazed.

There has been a plethora of videos of Turandot (though not so many as for some other Puccini operas), but not one has really separated itself from the pack as a clear first choice. The Levine set with Eva Marton and Plácido Domingo has been highly praised over the years and also features a Zeffirelli production, but suffers from 25-year-old video and audio technology. The Gergiev set on TDK offers the novelty of the Luciano Berio ending in place of the Alfano, but the cast is quite pedestrian. An earlier set from the Arena features Ghena Dimitrova and Nicola Martinucci. This one is better, in fact as good a choice as any, and has quite the best cast of singers of the three Guleghina sets.

The booklet contains a synopsis in Italian, English, German, and French. Audio formats are PCM stereo and Dolby 5.1 surround. Subtitles are in all major European languages, no Korean, but Japanese. There are no extras with the opera but it is available in both DVD and Blu-Ray formats. I would recommend the latter if you have the equipment; this production is a visual tour de force and the high-resolution picture is like watching it in a theater. Recommended.

FANFARE: Bill White

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: BAC066

  • UPC: 3760115300668

  • Label: BelAir Classiques

  • Composer: Giacomo Puccini

  • Conductor: Giuliano Carella

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Verona Teatro Arena Chorus, Verona Teatro Arena Orchestra

  • Performer: Carlo Bosi, Luiz-octavio Faria, Maria Guleghina, Salvatore Licitra, Tamar Iveri