Gramophone, February 2022
Neil Fisher
Puccini’s Turandot: the inside story a major new studio recording
A major studio opera recording is rare nowadays, but add in Kaufmann, Radvanovsky and some unusual material and it has all the makings of something unique indeed. Neil Fisher visits Rome to sit in on Pappano’s ‘complete’ Turandot for Warner Classics

Stranger, drunk with death … ’ The Emperor of China stands in the highest rungs of the choir stalls of the Auditorium Parco della Musica in Rome – a puppet king presiding over his unruly kingdom, addressing the prince whom he is trying to protect from a grisly fate at the hands of his own daughter.

It’s a piquant moment to arrive at sessions for a new studio recording of Puccini’s final opera, Turandot. It’s remarkable enough – at a time (March 2022) when significant Covid restrictions are still in force in Italy – to see such massed musical forces: the main body of the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia on the main stage, the key protagonists, among them Jonas Kaufmann as Calaf and Sondra Radvanovsky as Princess Turandot, standing on a raised platform behind them, and then the chorus carefully dispersed higher than them. Highest up in the distant galleries lurks the banda, the extra brass that Puccini folds into his most extravagantly scored work. In charge of this sprawling company is the conductor, Sir Antonio Pappano.

The delight of the score, the sheer invention … I very quickly got over my problem with the piece, as now I see it’s a different kind of theatre
Antonio Pappano

That two of the most acclaimed tenors of their generation are addressing each other – Michael Spyres in the tiny role of the geriatric Emperor Altoum directing his quivering warning at Kaufmann’s Calaf – is one of those unique things that comes only with a studio recording of a complete opera: a singer of Spyres’s calibre surely wouldn’t go near Altoum otherwise (on the famous Decca recording conducted by Zubin Mehta, Peter Pears sings Altoum opposite Luciano Pavarotti’s Calaf). Puccini marks the Emperor’s first entrance to be sung ‘with the tired voice of a decrepit old man’ (con voce stanca da vecchio decrepito). After Spyres’s first take at the ‘Stranger …’ line, Pappano shouts up to the imperial heavens: ‘A little bit more decrepit, Michael!’ A thumbs-up is flashed back, and we go again, a little more decrepit.

With Pappano on hand, this new recording of Turandot for Warner Classics has arguably the world’s most experienced Puccinian at its centre, as well as the world’s most marketable tenor, Kaufmann (on loan from Sony Classical), in the lead male role. Yet this is actually a project of debutants. Pappano has never touched Puccini’s final opera, and on the day of the British release (March 10, 2023) of the Warner recording he will begin his first run of it (with a different cast from that of the recording) at the Royal Opera House, London. Kaufmann has not sung Calaf on stage and nor has Radvanovsky sung Turandot. ‘The only person on that stage who’s done their role before is Ermonela,’ says Pappano, referring to the Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho (as Liù), a regular collaborator of his at Covent Garden. Radvanovsky says that coming to the work fresh has been a bonus. ‘I think we’re all learning and growing with it – in fact, I said to Maestro Pappano that I never want to learn another role in any other way except by recording it.’

It’s a homage to Stravinsky, Debussy, Strauss – the lurid Strauss. And there’s Hollywood all over this piece
Antonio Pappano

In spite of his long relationship with Puccini, Pappano has always resisted Turandot. ‘I had purposefully stayed away from it, because I couldn’t really appreciate its dramaturgy,’ he says in a break slotted in between hectic sessions that are stacked over eight days. ‘In Tosca, Madama Butterfly, even La fanciulla del West, the drama is so involving. Here it’s a fable. It includes the voices of the dead! It needs a suspension of disbelief.’ His way into the work has not been through character but through its sound world. ‘The delight of the score, the sheer invention … I got over my problem with the piece very quickly, because now I see it’s a different kind of theatre completely.’

Turandot, left unfinished at Puccini’s death in 1924, was a departure for the composer. True, in Tosca, the chorus has its tremendous Te Deum, the perfect backdrop to Scarpia’s machinations; but in Turandot (in this respect alone among Puccini’s operas), the chorus is front and centre, frequently driving the action, and it delivers some savage music shot through with bitonal menace. The expanded orchestration, featuring such exotic add-ons (for Italian opera) as xylophones, celesta, marimba and gongs of many sizes, added bold new sonorities. ‘It’s a snapshot of the beginning of the 20th century,’ Pappano says, ‘a homage to Stravinsky, to Debussy, and to Strauss – the lurid Strauss, the Salome Strauss. And, yes, there’s Hollywood all over this piece.’

The ceremonial flavour to the score – particularly the music that surrounds Turandot and her coterie – also requires a completely different approach from the conductor, one that lets those passages have grandeur without getting bogged down in them. ‘It’s ritualistic music, a lot of occasion music. So you have to measure the pomposity, and that’s very difficult to do, especially when recording in patches. It’s a fine line.’

The Parco della Musica was the site of Pappano’s much-praised recording of Aida (Warner Classics, A/15), with Kaufmann as Radamès, and it made obvious sense to him that the auditorium would suit Turandot too. ‘As was the case for Aida, the space is to our great advantage – for an opera that has so much chorus, such a broad orchestra and so many effects reliant on height and offstage distance.’ What Pappano had not bargained for was the tail-end of a global pandemic, requiring the musicians to observe rules on distancing that are sufficient to get even Pappano jittery when looking at his tight schedule. ‘So tonight we’re going to record one of the chorus scenes from Act 1, which is quite difficult to do with the banda, to get the ensemble. It’s really scary, and with the chorus distanced … it’s a nightmare. But … we’re making it work, and if I start to say it’s a nightmare, we’ll never get it done.’ After giving many unusual Covid concerts, Pappano is at least no stranger to the logistical and musical challenges involved. ‘I’ve been dealing with two years of distancing, trying to make everyone sing at the right time. It does concentrate everyone’s minds, and you grow up – this is the situation, so you make it work.’

When I catch up with Pappano many months later, when the edits are being done, along with the fine-tuning of the balance between singers and musicians, he thinks that the ‘sense of space’ that was forced on him by circumstance actually complements the structure of the piece. ‘It was a tremendous stress, but it also kind of helped the project.’ Agreeing on the final edits and production tweaks has been a group process, says Pappano, diplomatically. ‘There’s certainly been lively discussion and everybody fighting their corner, but that’s how recordings are, that’s what it’s about.’ Have the star singers been part of that conversation? ‘Of course – certainly, Jonas is very hands on. He’s involved in every step of the way.’

While few would argue that Turandot is a drama about multifaceted individuals, the two lead roles are notoriously challenging, their music littered with exposed, high-wire passages that also have to be delivered over Puccini’s glittering battery of an orchestra. ‘Steely’ is often a word written about a soprano with Princess Turandot in her repertoire, but when I hear Radvanovsky hit the stratospheric heights of ‘In questa reggia’ in the sessions, she is warmly expressive as well as thrillingly secure. The set piece concludes with a great, if unsubtle, soprano-tenor locking of horns. ‘The riddles are three, death is one!’ warns Turandot, but her suitor replies, haughtily: ‘The riddles are three, one is life.’ The clash is capped with high Cs sung in unison, which Kaufmann decides he needs to redo three times. (For what it’s worth, I hope Kaufmann lobbied the producer to take either the second or fourth high C.)

Callas has always been my idol: she wasn’t afraid to make a mistake or produce an ugly sound for the role
Sondra Radvanovsky

By that stage, Radvanovsky had already been singing above the stave for around 20 minutes, but when we talk shortly after this gruelling workout, Radvanovsky is relaxed, even replete. ‘I don’t think “In questa reggia” is meant to be sung for an hour and a half,’ she laughs, ‘but it sits in an easy part of my voice. People are so afraid of this role, but honestly, if you have the voice to sing it you shouldn’t be afraid of it. I’ve done all the steps leading up to it: Manon Lescaut, Tosca. I’ve already sung Liù. I’ve done Suor Angelica – all the “baby” to “medium” Puccini.’

So much for the role itself, but recording it, Radvanovsky admits (and this is her ‘first real recording’ of anything, she says), has its own unique challenges. ‘You learn a role in your body as if you’re going to sing it on stage – with that pressure, that intention; so then to take that pressure off and sing for the mics … the danger is not having enough support, the appoggio, to keep the role going. And the huge elephant in the room is that to sing every day for six, seven hours, you really have to have a good technique. You have to know how your voice works, and when you have to stop. And you have to live like a nun.’ Visiting the Colosseum or Trevi Fountain will have to wait for another trip. ‘I’ve not seen anything of Rome,’ she sighs. ‘I have a very direct route from here to the hotel, and then back again.’

Protecting the voice is one thing, but chasing perfectionism is also a mug’s game, she argues. ‘On the very first day of recording, I thought, “I have to be perfect.” I started out like that. But I learnt very quickly in about an hour that the more you allow the opera, and the singing, the character and the text, to be organic, the more it comes together.’ Another famous soprano who recorded the role of Turandot inspires her in that. ‘Maria Callas has been my idol my whole life, because she wasn’t afraid to make a mistake or produce an ugly sound for the role.’

Hanging over any interpreter of Turandot is the problem of how to negotiate its problematic finale, which Puccini had only loosely sketched out before he died. Nearly all productions of the opera use a truncated (bastardised might be a better word) version of the completion written by Franco Alfano. Arturo Toscanini intensely disliked what Alfano came up with: at the 1926 premiere of the opera in Milan, he brought it to an end with the last section Puccini had completed, the funeral music for Liù. Alfano was then told to pare back ‘his’ ending drastically, resulting in a chop of more than 100 bars. The resulting compromise pleases few but is still the automatic choice despite an intriguingly modernist (others would say jarring) alternative composed by Luciano Berio in 2001.

In his completion of the opera, Franco Alfano took the time to chip away, to allow Turandot to find her real self
Sondra Radvanovsky

Pappano, however, has taken the decision to resuscitate the Alfano ending in full. It’s a leap into the almost unknown: astonishingly, this version was first performed as late as 1982 and wasn’t commercially recorded until 1989, when Josephine Barstow sang it for a rewarding album of operatic finales conducted by John Mauceri (Decca, 9/90).

Alfano’s efforts layer a different mood and colour over Puccini’s idiom, but dramaturgically speaking, Pappano believes, they bridge the credibility gap between Liù’s death – she kills herself after Turandot orders her to be tortured – and the ice princess’s sudden defrosting when Calaf plants a smacker on her lips. ‘It’s 104 bars of very purple music,’ Pappano says. ‘But it explains the psychology of the lead heroine much better.’

It’s certainly strong meat. The extra material features offstage voices straight from an MGM spectacular; a long, reflective aria for Turandot, ‘Del primo pianto’, in which she describes her terror at her first encounter with Calaf; and an extended finale peppered with wild trumpet fanfares that Gramophone critic John Steane described as ‘Waltonian’ on the Barstow album. An enraptured Steane concluded that the complete Alfano music provides ‘the glorious, long-awaited and henceforth surely to-be-insisted-upon proper finale to Turandot’. The world may not have agreed, but, to my mind, the full Alfano is considerably superior to the standard truncation, not least because it avoids the naff, abrupt lurch to the ‘Nessun dorma’ theme, which is much more carefully seeded into the finale in Alfano’s original conception.

Pappano’s advocacy of the original completion focuses on how it reframes the relationship between Calaf and Turandot. ‘It’s a duet like no other. Alfano’s musical language uses themes that are dominantly Puccinian, but his approach has more to do with composers like Schreker, Syzmanowski … that almost narcotic use of harmony.’ Pappano thinks the brickbats Alfano received in 1926 have clung unfairly to what he achieved. ‘It’s received a bad rap. Toscanini said it needed shortening, that we had to cut to the chase sooner, but, actually, if you give it its time, it has a feeling of completeness and rightness. And both Jonas and Sondra were really up for it – they were so excited about doing it. Is some of it OTT? Yes, of course – but it gives great satisfaction.’

Radvanovsky agrees. ‘It makes the characters of Turandot and Calaf much more interesting! You find a relationship.’ Alfano’s extra music has added to her resolve that the title-role has often been misunderstood. ‘She’s become known to be sung – at the Metropolitan Opera, at least – as a Heldensopran. I’d like to break that tradition.’ To do so means understanding the princess’s vulnerability, her tragedy. ‘She’s a woman who had no choice in life. She’s very young. She’s never felt love. I think there’s a lot of sadness inside her. Doing the Alfano music is a real game-changer because you get to see why she does what she does – why she pushes Calaf away.’

At the heart of it is the aria ‘Del primo pianto’, in which, basking in Calaf’s love, Turandot removes her emotional armoury. ‘Somebody took the time to chip away and to allow her to find her real self,’ says Radvanovsky. ‘I think what we’re all finding, especially after a two-year pandemic, is that we have felt lost. Who am I? Where do I go from here?’

The sheer rarity of a studio recording of a complete opera automatically raises the stakes of this Turandot. It also puts the creative team in competition with hallowed predecessors: on EMI (now under Warner) you’ll find a Turandot and a Calaf many consider unsurpassable: Birgit Nilsson and Franco Corelli. Can another Turandot match up? Pappano, whose own discography on EMI includes La bohème, Il trittico, La rondine, Tosca and Madama Butterfly, is unperturbed. ‘I think this generation of singers needs to be given a chance to record these pieces. Jonas in many ways couldn’t be more different from Corelli and Sondra more different from Nilsson. I’ve been conducting Puccini for a while – I’m not exactly an imposter. And with EMI we never really finished the Puccini cycle, so it’s nice to add on to what we’ve already done.’

And, yes, there’s still unfinished business, for when Pappano puts ancient Peking aside, he’s already thinking about a trip to California in the gold rush era. ‘I do want to get my hands on The Girl of the Golden West. It’s a piece I adore and has an orchestral contribution that is sensational.’ With a powerful, charismatic tenor and soprano having already made the grade for Pappano’s Turandot, perhaps the casting is already half done.

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