07 August 2015

CD REVIEW: Giacomo Puccini – TURANDOT (J. Wilson, A. Bocelli, J. Nuccio, A. Tsymbalyuk, G. Olvera, V. Buzza, P. García López, J. Agulló, V. Anastasov; DECCA 478 8293)

CD REVIEW: Giacomo Puccini - TURANDOT (DECCA 478 8293)GIACOMO PUCCINI (1858 – 1924): Turandot [Completion by Franco Alfano]—Jennifer Wilson (Turandot), Andrea Bocelli (Calàf), Jessica Nuccio (Liù), Alexander Tsymbalyuk (Timur), Germán Olvera (Ping), Valentino Buzza (Pang), Pablo García López (Pong), Javier Agulló (L’imperatore Altoum, il Principe di Persia), Ventselav Anastasov (Un mandarino), Carmen Avivar (Ancella di Turandot), Jacqueline Squarcia (Ancella di Turandot); Escolania de la Mare de Déu dels Desemparats, Coro de la Generalitat Valenciana; Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana; Zubin Mehta, conductor [Recorded in Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia, Valencia, Spain, in 2014; DECCA 478 8293; 2 CDs, 116:50; Available from DECCA Classics, Amazon (USA), iTunes, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

It is discouraging and often deeply disheartening to note that the open-mindedness that is an indelible element of opera is absent from the points of view of many of those who claim to love and safeguard it. Opera is an art form that asks the observer to hear and see with the heart, not with the ears and eyes, and the listener unable or unwilling to set aside preconceptions and prejudices when taking his seat in the theatre or pressing 'play' in his own living room is doomed to frequent disappointment. By some exalted assessments, the foremost function of Art is to reflect the workings of humanity in such a way that the most clandestine failures and foibles are revealed, not in hostility but with humility and sincere hope for positive change. Such is the hypocrisy of opera that people who purport to love it complain of a dearth of important, influential singing with one breath and with the next dismiss today's finest singers because they are not the equals of favored singers of past generations. To be more drawn to and moved by certain singers than others is natural, and there are biases that are perhaps impossible to overcome. The listener who heard Flagstad as Isolde is unlikely to prefer or even accept any other singer's portrayal, but Flagstad is regrettably no longer among us. Opera should be an equalizer, its only partiality being for singers, conductors, and musicians who work hard and give of their best. Much of what has been written—by parties who are unlikely to have actually heard it, in many cases—about this Turandot is as stupid as it is insensitive and offensive. Conducting the score before studio microphones forty-two years after first recording it for DECCA, Zubin Mehta unfurls an affection for Puccini's music unfaded by time. For that reason alone, this recording earns respect. As it turns out, however, there is much in this Turandot to confound naysayers and remind listeners that, no matter how mightily it struggles to disarm misunderstanding, opera is an art of acceptance.

Mehta's approach to Turandot is documented in several recordings of radio broadcasts and audio and video preservations of live performances, in addition to the much-discussed 1972 DECCA studio recording with Dame Joan Sutherland, Luciano Pavarotti, and Montserrat Caballé. In the four decades since last recording the opera in studio, Mehta's basic management of the score has changed little, but there are appreciable differences in the nuances of his interpretation that are indicative of a subtle but substantial evolution in the conductor's understanding of the music. His earlier reading has as its tonal center of gravity a focus on the sumptuous Romanticism of the quintessentially Puccinian melodic fecundity of the score. Now, the opera's tunefulness is still central to Mehta's conducting, but the atmospheric context of thematic development is decidedly that of the Twentieth rather than the Nineteenth Century. Interestingly, the principal soloists in the present recording possess voices of dimensions similar to those of Mehta's first DECCA cast: a lushly powerful Turandot confronts a straightforwardly lyrical Calàf and a silken-voiced Liù with a lean streak of steel at her command. This vocal configuration produces vastly different results in the more modern sound world of the newer recording. In Act One, the influence of Puccini's acquaintance with the music of Debussy permeates the score, and the distinctive voices of Bartók and Ravel are clearly heard amidst the cacophonies of Acts Two and Three. Under Mehta's direction, the singers of the Coro de la Generalitat Valenciana and, especially, the children of the Escolania de la Mare de Déu dels Desemparats sing idiomatically, credible as a populace first inflamed by Turandot's thirst for blood and ultimately crushed by the weight of their own zealotry when it claims Liù as an innocent victim. Their invocation to the moon in Act One is stirringly done, and the youngsters' voicing of 'Là, sui monti dell'Est la cicogna cantò’ is touching. There are subtle indications of true regret in 'O giovinetto,' the perverse funeral march that accompanies the courageous Principe di Persia—sung winningly by Spanish tenor Javier Agulló—to the scaffold. The massive walls of sound constructed by Puccini in Act Two, epitomized by 'Diecimila anni al nostro Imperatore,' are recreated by the choristers with confidence that increases with every bar. The high-water mark of the choral singing on these discs is 'Ombra dolente, non farci del male! Perdona, perdona!' in Act Three, the choristers meaningfully limning the crowd's sudden recognition of its collective complicity in the relentless pursuit of Turandot's cold agenda that takes Liù's life. Like their choral colleagues, the players of the Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana face no demands from composer or conductor that they are incapable of meeting. The crucial xylophone and harp parts are performed particularly well, but the overall level of playing among the instrumentalists is commendably high. Musical standards are sufficient for both the incredible originality and beauty of the composer's score and the many thoughtful details of the conductor's interpretation of it to be apparent throughout the performance.

Singing the small rôles of the Ancelle di Turandot, sopranos Carmen Avivar and Jacqueline Squarcia perform their tasks with lovely, well-schooled voices that promise future successes. [Avivar is already an accomplished heroine in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, in fact.] Agulló returns as L'Imperatore Altoum, Turandot's well-meaning father, and it is fantastic to hear a fresh, steady sound in the part rather than the typical superannuated singers' wheezing and whining. Agulló phrases 'Un giuramento atroce mi costringe a tener fede al fosco patto' with tenderness, and this 'figlio del cielo' seems genuinely thrilled when Calàf solves the three riddles. The Mandarino of Bulgarian baritone Ventseslav Anastasov is also a vocally youthful impersonation, the top C♯s in his declamations of 'Popolo di Pekino! La legge è questa!' projected with penetrating focus. The singer's distinctive vibrato adds an element of urgency to his resonant delivery of Puccini's music: he is an aptly engaging representative of an uncommonly energetic emperor.

As the chameleonic Maschere Ping, Pang, and Pong, Mexican baritone Germán Olvera, Italian tenor Valentino Buzza, and Spanish tenor Pablo García López sing athletically separately and in ensemble. From the first bars of their ‘Fermo! che fai? T'arresta!' in Act One, the gentlemen seem to be having a grand time, Olvera's fun not even slightly inhibited by Ping's frequent top E♭s and Fs. He laces Ping’s ‘Lascia le donne! O prendi cento spose’ with biting irony, and his singing of ‘Olà, Pang! Olà, Pong!’ in the Maschere's scene at the beginning of Act Two is the aural equivalent of rolled eyes and shrugged shoulders. The uncomplicated beauty of the trio's paean to their native country, ‘O China, o China, che or sussulti e trasecoli in quieta,’ is ravishing. The tenors' upper registers are alluringly bright in ‘Tu che guardi le stelle, abbassa gli occhi' in Act Three: many a weak-willed Calàf might readily surrender to their dulcet-toned entreaties. Apart from a few pinched tones, Olvera, Buzza, and García López are a near-ideal triumvirate. These young singers cause one to wonder why opera houses (and record labels) tolerate Ping, Pang, and Pong being so often poorly sung.

Timur is a study in contrasts. Still brave and proud, the deposed king is bent by age and disability, his blindness symbolic of his destroyed concentration on the common good of his people. Young Ukrainian bass Alexander Tsymbalyuk injects his portrayal of the noble old man with vestiges of his former glory that render him unusually sympathetic. Suddenly reunited with his son, this Timur imparts a sense of destiny fulfilled, a sense that is upset first by Calàf's determination to win Turandot's hand and later, irreversibly, by Liù's death. Tsymbalyuk sings ‘O figlio, vuoi dunque ch'io solo, ch'io solo trascini pel mondo la mia torturata vecchiezza' in Act One harrowingly, tacitly mourning what Timur perceives as the second loss of his son. In Act Three, the security of his tone in ‘Liù! Liù! sorgi! sorgi! È l'ora chiara d'ogni risveglio!’ makes his pain all the more moving, and he voices ‘Ah! delitto orrendo!’ with profound grief, his ringing top E♭ and F wrenchingly angry and desperate. Supported by Mehta's tempo and management of the orchestra, Tsymbalyuk's expansive phrasing of ‘Liù! bontà! Liù! dolcezza!’ expresses in a few bars the enormity of Timur's love for Liù. Timur has rarely sounded as three-dimensional on records as Tsymbalyuk makes him in this performance. Furthermore, his music has seldom been sung so handsomely even by legendary basses in their primes.

Not even thirty years old when this Turandot was recorded, Palermo-born soprano Jessica Nuccio depicts a fragile but surprisingly mature Liù. It has rarely been more obvious in a recorded performance of Turandot that Liù's servitude is a choice, not a compulsion. First heard in Act One begging for assistance in lifting the fallen Timur, clearly as much a father to her as to Calàf, the girlish honesty of Nuccio's phrasing of ‘Il mio vecchio è vaduto’ is like a ray of sunlight forcing its way through the tempestuous orchestration. She enunciates ‘Chi m'aiuta, chi m'aiuta a sorreggerlo’ with understated ardor, and there is a heartbreaking blend of pride and shame in her statement of ‘Nulla sono...una schiava.' She rises to the top B♭ on ‘mi hai sorriso’ with innocent passion that even the most dim-witted Calàf should not fail to comprehend. Nuccio's performance of ‘Signore, ascolta!’ is a highlight of the recording, her top A♭s and B♭projected with purity and spot-on intonation. In Act Three, this Liù's death recalls the ritualistic suicide of Puccini's Cio-Cio San. Nuccio spins the top As and B in ‘Tanto amore segreto, e inconfessato' with the glimmer of golden threads. Throughout the performance, she is very cautious in the lower octave, giving an impression of reserving her resources for excursions above the stave, but such self-cognizance is laudable, especially in a young singer. Another highlight of the recording is Nuccio's account of ‘Tu, che di gel sei cinta,’ her top B♭ lofted heavenward as a final gesture of devotion to the man she hopelessly loves. With informed stewardship of her beautiful, evenly-produced lyric instrument, Nuccio seems on the path to wonderful things in the footsteps of the incomparable Mirella Freni.

Andrea Bocelli is of course the raison d'être for this recording, musically and commercially. If there are listeners who hear this Turandot solely because of Bocelli's participation, what harm is there in that? If there are listeners who do not hear this Turandot solely because of Bocelli's participation, however, foolish prejudice offends composer, conductor, and cast. In truth, the tenor embarrasses neither himself nor his colleagues. The voice is a somewhat colorless, sometimes strenuously-produced instrument, but Bocelli is an imaginative, ardent singer whose excellent diction and authentic Italianate temperament lift his Calàf above the level of a number of today's tenors who sing the rôle. When Bocelli's Calàf encounters Timur in the opening pages of Act One, his ‘Padre! Mio padre!’ complements Tsymbalyuk's expressions of elation. Bocelli discloses no fear of the top B♭ on ‘O padre, sì, ti ritrovo!’ or the B♭♭ on ‘T'ho pianto, padre...e bacio queste ma ni sante!’ His voices grows steadier and more impactful as the range extends upward, in fact. Trumpeting Calàf's decision to challenge Turandot's wrath, his repetitions of her name tremble with erotic tension as they ascend to his ecstatic top B♭. Kinder to Liù from the start than many Calàfs, his voicing of ‘Non piangere, Liù!’ is comforting and shaped with silvery, elastic tone. In Act Two, this Calàf declares his intentions to the emperor with exclamations of ‘Figlio del cielo, io chiedo d'affrontar la prova!’ that become more impassioned with each repetition. The unison top C with Turandot on ‘Gli enigmi sono tre, una è la vita!’ taxes Bocelli, but once past this challenge his upper register never fails him. His vocalism in the Riddle Scene is marvelously masculine, the top B♭s on ‘Il mio fuoco ti sgela: Turandot!’ fired like missiles. The interpolated top C on ‘No, no, Principessa altera! Ti voglio tutta ardente d'amor!' is a tone worthy of Bocelli's teacher, Franco Corelli. Bocelli's performance of the ubiquitous ‘Nessun dorma’ is slightly disappointing, the bland phrasing suggesting that he is distracted by the expectation of producing a clarion noise on the most abused top B in opera. His imagination again takes flight in ‘Ah! Tu sei morta, tu sei morta, o mia piccola Liù,’ though, and the spitfire ‘Principessa di morte! Principessa di gelo!’ Scaling the heights of the opera's final scene, in which Franco Alfano's completion of the score is utilized, Bocelli sings more expressively than many tenors find it possible to do when battling such punishing tessitura. This performance is not a stunt or the indulgence of a talented amateur. Calàf is a rôle that Bocelli likely could not manage credibly in a large opera house like the MET [it should be noted, however, that he has sung the part to acclaim in the open-air Teatro di Silenzio in his Tuscan hometown, Lajatico], and there are subtle indications in this recording of electronic assistance, but judged on his own terms—not those of Merli, Martinelli, del Monaco, Corelli, Bonisolli, or whichever Calàf is the darling of the listener's heart—he is a satisfying, unimpeachably musical Calàf.

In the title rôle, American soprano Jennifer Wilson continues the tradition of Gertrude Grob-Prandl, Birgit Nilsson, and Dame Gwyneth Jones by coming to Turandot with extensive experience as a Wagnerian to her credit. In recent years, good Brünnhildes have infrequently proved good Turandots, but Wilson defies that trend with a performance of prodigious and, above all, wobble-free tone. The start of ‘In questa reggia' announces that this is a Turandot whose high notes need not be dreaded. Wilson's singing of ‘Principessa Lou-Ling, ava dolce e serena’ boils with generations of accumulated ire, and her top B on ‘Quel grido e quella morte!’ is heart-stopping. The pedal-to-the-floor top C on ‘No! No! Gli enigmi sono tre, la morte è una' is galvanizing. Wilson's reserved traversal of the Riddle Scene is ignited by her piercing ‘Su, straniero, il gelo che dà foco, che cos'è?’ and ultimately tempered by the dramatic uncertainty of her ‘Figlio del cielo! Padre augusto!’ The engineers might have made detonating the pair of top Cs over the chorus on 'Mi vuoi nelle tue braccia a forza riluttante, fremente!' easier on her, but she dispatches the notes fabulously. Turandot’s capitulation to the liberating power of love courses through Wilson's voicing of ‘Che mai osi, straniero,’ and she conveys an intriguing tranquility with ‘La mia gloria è finita!' The soprano's top As and B in ‘Del primo pianto’ are as evocative of burgeoning sensuality as her top Cs in Brünnhilde's duets with Siegfried in Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, but the apotheosis of Wilson's performance is the top B♭ on ‘Il suo nome è Amor!’ Here, in a single phrase, she summarizes her still-underestimated artistry: there is no power—vocal, dramatic, or metaphysical—except through dedication and understanding of oneself.

Though it is an exceptionally well-crafted score that extols its composer's genius on every page, Turandot is not an opera like La bohème that can withstand poor singing. Poor singing having become debilitatingly commonplace in performances of the opera, however, what accounts for the enduring popularity of the opera after its slow start, complicated by Puccini's death before completing the score? On the surface, Turandot is essentially a clash of archetypes, but few composers were more skilled at disguising archetypes as people about whom audiences care. Beneath the surface, then, Turandot is a love story, and, whether or not they are willing to admit it, almost all opera lovers respond to plots that explore love among characters who win audiences’ affection. Insightfully conducted, enthusiastically and often superbly sung, and expertly recorded, this is a Turandot with much to love.