PUCCINI: Turandot – Birgit Nilsson, soprano/ Franco Corelli, tenor & others/MET/ Stokowski – Pristine (2 CDs)

by | Mar 12, 2012 | Classical Reissue Reviews

PUCCINI: Turandot – Birgit Nilsson, soprano/ Franco Corelli, tenor/ Anna Moffo, soprano/ Alessio de Paolis, tenor/ Frank Guarrara, baritone/ Calvin Marsh, baritone/ Bonaldo Gialotti, baritone/ MET Opera Chorus and Orchestra/ Leopold Stokowski – Pristine Audio PACO 071, (2 CDs) TT: 1:58:41 [avail. in various formats at www.pristine classical.com] ****:
It took conductor Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977) seventy-eight years to mount the podium at the MET, leading a performance (4 March 1961) that had first been assigned to the late Dimitri Mitropoulos. Having suffered a hip injury, Stokowski made his painful way to the podium via crutches, but once in front of his ensemble, he shed any encumbrances with a controlled fury. The revival of Puccini’s 1924 Turandot by the MET had waited for thirty-one years; and while the opera (incomplete at the time of Puccini’s death), might not represent the composer’s most inspired work, it still communicates an exotic adventurously harmonic splendor and dramatic punch that find memorable lyric moments that culminate with “In questa Reggia” and the immortal “Nessun dorma!” The use of a kind of leitmotif in the form of the children’s chorus in Act I after the invocation to the moon serves to introduce the icy Princess Turandot.
Edilio Ferraro enacts the doomed Prince of Persia, who has failed to answer the three riddles required to win the Princess’ hand. Birgit Nilsson (1918-2005) embodies the cold-hearted Turandot with an almost metallic relish in her voice, her sustaining power notoriously greater than that of her co-star Franco Corelli. Corelli’s intimidation by Nilsson’s vocal powers became legend when he purportedly bit her on the ear! Anna Moffo (1932-2006) emerges as a major dramatic force in her portrayal of Liu, who loves the Calaf to the point of death. Her Act I “Signore, ascolta!“ proves heartbreaking in its agonized intimacy. Corelli consoles Liu, “Non plangere, Liu!” urging her to remain with his father should he fail in his quest. A weird combination of comedy and pathos had erupted in Act I, in which Ping (Guarrara), Pang (Robert Nagy), and Pong (Charles Anthony) try to convince the young suitor to desist in his suicidal courtship of Turandot, whose three riddles have undone so many. Corelli emerges in full voice, declaring his will to pursue the ice princess. The ensemble piece that ends Act I “Ah! Per l’ultima volta!” conveys a crushing power of conviction.
After the preparations and nostalgic lamentations from the ministers that open Act II,  which includes some soulful singing from Frank Guerrera, longing for his Honan country house, situated by a lake surrounded by bamboo, they recall that too often their preparations have involved both weddings and funerals. The palace trumpet’s sounding at dawn (“Udite trombe! Altro che pace!”) ushers in the thought of impending death, as Alessio de Paolis tremulously admonishes The Prince to withdraw his challenge of the three riddles in his “Un giuramente atroce mi costringe.” The MET Chorus intones in radiant colors over the ominous bass chords of impending fate. Turandot’s “In questa Reggia” explains the Princesses’ rancor, since she embodies the spirit of a ravaged and murdered ancient, a victim of Tartars, Princess Lo-u-Ling, and has sworn that no man shall possess her. When Nilsson hits “grido,” the effect proves shattering. Corelli replies with sterling energy that though the riddles are three, life is one. The posing of the three riddles enjoys Stokowski’s dire pacing, the silences between each word of the questions rife with menace. The Prince’s first answer, “La Speranza!” (Hope) achieves the desired shock effect. Corelli’s “Il Sangue!” (Blood) has Nilsson virtually screeching in agony. Her taunt about fire and ice in the third riddle evokes his “Turandot!” as the paradoxical answer. “Son of Heaven” praises the populace in response to the lifting of the curse. Nilsson’s voice becomes inflamed by misery and high-note fury as she pleads to be released from the condition of marriage, and the Prince offers to release her if she can produce his secret name (“Tre engmi m’hai proposto), already infused with figures from the upcoming “Nessun dorma!”
Act III opens with the chorus’ invocation (“Cosi comanda Turandot”) that everyone seek the name of the Prince, in order to release Turandot from her vow. Typically, Stokowski’s coloring of the orchestra highlights the audacious scoring by Puccini. Corelli has his immortal moment of tragic longing in “Nessun dorma!” floating the high B and A in marvelous chest tone. His final “Vincero!” brings down the house. Once again, Anna Moffo demonstrates her combination of vocal and dramatic acuity in the extended scene of Liu’s torture and martyred death for love, “Tanto amore segreto” and its sequel, “Tu che di gei sei cinta.”  Baritone Bonaldo Gialotti as the blind Timur has his shining aria in “Liu! Liu! Sorgi!“ Subsequent to Liu’s funeral procession, the Prince rends Turandot’s veil, a vehement “Principessa di morte!” planted upon Turandot’s cold lips by an impassioned Corelli, the harmonies a step away from Bernard Hermann. One enamored kiss proves potent to melt the ice princess, the pheromones magical enough to teach Turandot compassion. Franco Alfano completed Turandot, proclaiming the Calaf’s name as ‘Love” reintroducing “Nessun dorma!“ as a closing motif; and for those who admire this incomplete and perhaps flawed masterpiece, the epithet suits the Stokowski debut perfectly.
—Gary Lemco

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