Turandot, it goes without saying in view of the popularity and diffusion it has achieved, is the last of the operas written by Puccini ; and also, in the opinion of some distinguished scholars of his work, the most modern of them all, the one that manages to incorporate the innovations of its time in compositional technique without diminishing its accessibility to all audiences, who have favoured it from the moment of its premiere in 1926, thanks to its fiery lyricism and the solid conciseness of its dramatic construction.
It is an opera for voices, which calls for three contrasting vocal types in its main roles : a tenor with heroic overtones, Calaf, who must be able to give expression to the amorous sentiment, in a way a compendium of the virtues and attributes of the Italian tenor, which is usually understood to be destined for voices of the spinto category, like that of the first protagonist, the Spaniard Miguel Fleta ; a dramatic soprano, Turandot (the Polish Rosa Raisa in the premiere), whose role is as brief as it is demanding, who must possess a sparkling high register, capable of breaking through the wall of the instrumental mass (which is the reason why many a Wagnerian soprano has been tempted to sing the part, at one time or another in their career). From the interpretative point of view, a variety of registers is demanded of the princess, from the disdain and even cruelty which characterize her at the beginning, to the final duet in which she has to show that she eventually becomes humane through the transforming power of love which, in the manner of an Ariadne in China ; and a lyric soprano, Liù (the Italian Maria Zamboni at the premiere), the last avatar in the gallery of loving, sensitive and suffering female characters created by the composer, who, perhaps paradoxically, is the one who manages on most occasions to obtain the largest applause from the audience, thanks to the intense and exquisite, and in any case deeply moving, character of the two great solo moments that are destined for her, the brief exhortation “Signore ascolta” in Act I, and even more importantly, the scene that culminates in her suicide in Act III, “Tu che di gel sei cinta”.
An opera which also, and perhaps especially, calls for a large effective choral and orchestral ensemble, the largest that Puccini ever used in his career, including white voices and an important percussion section, because the fourth most important character in the work is certainly the popolo di Pechino who is called upon from the initial speech of the Mandarin, who is the protagonist of the entire opening segment of the first act. The people, as anonymous as they are real, who – as in other moments in the distant and recent history of mankind, to which there is no need to refer in greater detail – witness, amid contradictory impulses of silence, horror, unease, ambivalence and cowardice, the actions apparently destined for others, by those who in reality determine their collective destiny. And an opera, of course, for a director who is able to organise the lavish elements at his disposal, who is in tune with the disparate and dazzling heritage of the aesthetic and musical modernism(s) of the first decades of the twentieth century. The work includes both the tragic incandescence of the main protagonists' vicissitudes and, as a counterpoint, welcomes the ironic and the grotesque which, relativising (belittling ? ) the exalted interventions of the unknown Prince, the Ice Princess and the slave girl in love, introduce as an antithesis or a distancing tool the trio of ministers from the Commedia dell'arte ; here again, juxtaposing the sublime and the ridiculous, opera seria and opera buffa, as in Ariadne auf Naxos whose second, definitive version was premiered in 1916, a little less than ten years before Turandot, but also as in Shakespeare, and as in Cervantes. An opera director should be able to convey the exceptional position of the work not only as the final and culminating point of Puccini's production, but in more than one sense, of three long centuries of Italian opera, for the use of the voice with a melodic power and a function of expression of human emotions whose roots go back, beyond Verdi, to romantic belcantismo and to Monteverdi himself.
In addition to all these problems, the interpretation of Turandot raises the problem of its status as an unfinished work : beyond the scene of Liù's death, the composer only managed to leave a few sketches or notes of what was to be the final duet of redemption for the love of the Princess. Here too, the different, generally unsatisfactory solutions to this not inconsiderable question are well known. The first, and clearly dominant in interpretative praxis, especially until recent times, consisted of presenting a finale composed at the request of the musical director at the premiere of the work, Arturo Toscanini, by Franco Alfano, albeit in an abridged version, since Toscanini had not approved of the original composition by Alfano. The main drawback of that solution lies in the very obvious difference between that finale and what Puccini managed to write, in terms of musical quality. The second, chosen for example for the presentation of the work at the Salzburg Festival in 2002, conducted by Valery Gergiev, or for its most recent appearance at La Scala in 2015, conducted by Riccardo Chailly, is to present the finale written by Luciano Berio ; but in this case the gap between the style of Berio's writing and that of Puccini is so deep that, whatever one may think of Berio, it is impossible to perceive his finale as part of the same work. A third solution, which follows the current production at the Bayerische Staatsoper, premiered in 2011 by Zubin Mehta, is to offer exclusively the music composed by Puccini, without the addition of any final duet between Prince and Princess, so that the work ends with the scene of Liù's death, which is sufficiently cathartic in itself, and the subsequent funeral procession, with the moving lament of Timur mourning the slave girl, whose example becomes a heartbreaking metaphor for a humanity sacrificed perhaps needlessly, as Arkel does with Mélisande. This is not the least convincing of solutions, nor the least respectful of Puccini as a composer : if Schubert's Unfinished or Bruckner's Ninth have imposed themselves (despite more or less successful attempts to complete their work) as perfectly finished symphonies, complete as monumental torsos whose lack of completion does not hinder their autonomy, viability and fullness as works of art, one can only wonder why this same consideration and deference should not be observed towards one who is generally agreed to be one of the greatest composers of the lyric genre of all time. And the fourth solution, the most infrequent of all, is the one that was chosen for this concert performance, and that we can therefore hope will be included in the long-awaited official recording ; that is, no more and no less than a return to the original finale composed by Franco Alfano, a duet between Prince and Princess and final apotheosis of orchestra and chorus on the celebrated theme of “Nessun dorma”, but a considerably longer duet than in the usual version, with important demands on soprano and tenor, with an introspective central section in the manner of the concluding duet of the third act of Siegfried. This version, heard on this occasion, is clearly more satisfactory than the usual abridged version, especially insofar as it manages to portray the transformation of the heroine in a more gradual, convincing and credible way. The question, in any case, remains open, and it seems clear that it is impossible, or even unnecessary, to reach an unequivocal, definitive and permanent conclusion.
As far as today's performance is concerned, it will be appropriate to begin by discussing, as we usually do, the staging aspects. With the proviso that today there was, at least in principle, no staging (as the ministers say, “Turandot non esiste”), since the work was presented in that strange hybrid form which is the concert version. But every concert, including those in which the composition offered belongs to the theatrical genre, involves a certain dramatic component, from the solemn (or not) appearance on stage of the musicians of the orchestra and, where appropriate, the members of the chorus, followed by the appearance of the concertmaster, and culminating finally in that of the musical director, like a figlio dal cielo who appears to perform his sacred office before the people. When the opera is given in concert version, the main protagonist is the orchestra, which occupies the central and most important part of the stage, free to pour the fullness of its sound on the auditorium without the constrictions of the opera house pit ; and even above the orchestra, its conductor, who is also the conductor of the chorus and soloists, and around whom the galaxy formed by the performers gravitates. This was the case today, and the expected ritual was fulfilled without incident. The orchestra of the Academia de Santa Cecilia filled or nearly filled the immense central space with its more than one hundred instrumentalists, while the members of the choirs, unexpectedly observing rigorous measures of social distancing (or was it also a dramatic effect?) were harmoniously distributed in the spacious stands in front of and to the sides of the conductor-solo. In addition, to his right, sharing space with the choristers, were some of the brass and percussion instruments. The appearance of the children's choir took place at the beginning of the first act, occupying the highest part of the hall, as befits its angelic nature. Turandot’s, as the libretto demands, took place during the first act, the performer in the upper tier in front of the conductor, splendid in her imperial silence, also in her long dress which she would abandon for a simpler, more human garment for the third act. Although the singers generally remained in the immediate vicinity of their respective music stands, the tenor allowed himself to approach the soprano during the final duet, to kiss her, while the orchestra eloquently explained the awakening of love between them. And throughout the concert, the lighting changed in the hall, so as to focus attention on certain places (thus, the aforementioned appearance of the Princess in the first act), and/or to reinforce the sensations aroused by the music (thus, in the final bars, when all the lights in the hall were switched on, to reflect the musical plenitude of the moment). So we had, if not a staged version, and not even semi-staged, at least a well lit version. Turandot, be that as it may, lends itself rather well to a concert version, because of the already mentioned prominence of orchestra and chorus in its development, and also because of the hieratic nature of some of its scenes and the formal abstraction sought in others (e.g. the interventions of the ministers), which has allowed for example the work to withstand perfectly unscathed an exercise in ritualisation as rigorous (and sterile) as that to which it was subjected by Bob Wilson in Bastille a few months ago. From this point of view, a concert version such as the one offered today fulfils to a certain extent the function of a white page or a blank canvas, on which the spectator can pour the visual and dramatic fantasies that the more or less “naked” music arouses in him.
Such fantasies can also be fed, in the spacious foyer of the hall, by the contemplation of the images that are preserved of the original scenography of the premiere of the work, due to Galileo Chini, and of the costumes created by Luigi Sapelli, which place the spectator before what the exhibition offered in the Auditorium until the end of this month aptly christens Puccini's magic Eastern.
In his long tenure at the helm of the Roman orchestra, Pappano has offered, with generally happy results, concert versions of the most diverse operas, from Don Giovanni to Peter Grimes, including Guillaume Tell, Un ballo in maschera or Aida, which was simultaneously the subject of a studio recording, a procedure that is now repeated for Turandot. Pappano is undoubtedly one of the most distinguished Puccini conductors of recent decades, and this, together with his status as the titular conductor of such a great opera house as Covent Garden, makes it certainly singular, if not outright anomalous, that he had not so far approached a major work like Turandot. Today, he drew the warmest ovations from the audience, and even a standing ovation at the end of the performance. His conducting is based on the desire to respect what is written in the score, an attitude that has characterised his career, far from the personalistic approaches of some godly conductors who emphasise their own presence rather than the work being performed. Like Turandot, Pappano does not exist ; and yet, without him, nothing is possible. His interpretation adheres to a prudent middle ground in expressive terms, and perhaps because of this, with an apparent absence of emphasis, he manages to balance the thousand aesthetic currents that converge in the score. Less sensual and dramatic than Mehta, less dissonant and modern than Chailly, less symphonic and narrative than Dudamel, Pappano does not forget to include in his recipe the appropriate doses of each of these ingredients, and as he is also or above all a splendid opera conductor, he achieves a symphonic Turandot that is also an exemplary exercise in concertation for the voices, which always find the necessary space to breathe. Meticulous, he brings to light a plethora of details in the instrumental writing that usually go unnoticed or are simply overlooked. This Turandot is thus akin to the other fantastic Eastern ladies conceived or dreamt of by Western musicians at the beginning of the twentieth century, with a sense of orchestral colouring that has something to do with the Ravel, Szymanovsky or Scriabin that Pappano likes to include in his symphonic programmes, and which is presented not as ornamentation but as an essential part of the musical discourse. Thus conducted, the Santa Cecilia Orchestra once again demonstrates that in this repertoire it has little to envy from any other, and the choir likewise rises to the occasion, with an extraordinary variety of dynamics and a very powerful presence in the concluding bars.
It is also to Pappano's credit that he has assembled around him a truly splendid team of solo voices, with unbelievable luxury down to the most minor roles.
Indeed, it is no mean feat to hear Altoum's phrases sculpted with the clarity, elegance and incisiveness of tenor Cortellazzi, whose penetrating voice spreads seamlessly to the last gallery of the auditorium ; nor should one fail to notice the Mandarin's exhortations, when delivered with as much authority and cleanliness as bass-baritone Michael Mofidian.
In the trio of ministers, the generous vocality of tenor Siyabonga Maqungo, whom we joyfully recall meeting in a Meistersinger David at the 2019 Berlin Festtage, shines brightly, as does the velvet of baritone Mattia Olivieri and the expressiveness of tenor Gregory Bonfatti.
Within the Puccinian genealogy, Timur is "Colline's son", though the lament with which his part closes seems to transcend the individual circumstances that give rise to it. The presence of Michele Pertusi in this cast, assembled to be preserved for recording, was self-evident, given the artist's eminent rank among the bass voices of his generation ; and while the acoustics of the vast nave of Santa Cecilia are extremely unfavourable for singers, which meant that his instrument did not always impose itself on the orchestral and choral fabric with the roundedness ideally desirable, rarely has one heard such an eloquent, humane and moving Timur.
Ermonela Jaho is another singer who needs no introduction ; on the large spectrum of characters she has sung, the mournful Puccinian heroines are surely those who most gratefully fit her temperament and means, such as her unforgettable Suor Angelica in Munich. The role of Liù, undoubtedly the most rewarding of the three main roles, suits Jaho to perfection, who can freely deploy the purity of her singing line, the radiant luminosity of her high register, the exquisite reflections of her intensity regulators, in broad, ecstatic, iridescent, iridescent phrases, which, in accordance with their proper function within the score, bring the infernal machine of the masses to a halt, at least for a moment, and place us for a few moments in the presence of the ineffable, as if the voice of an earthly angel were heard. And there is a kind of religious emotion in Jaho's intense, crystalline, perfectly measured and chiselled singing.
The role of Calaf is a new debut in the career of Jonas Kaufmann, who just sang his first Peter Grimes in Vienna a few weeks ago, and who in turn tackled the part of Tristan in Munich for the first time last July, which reflects the extreme versatility of this artist. Kaufmann's voice, as is well known, does not in principle correspond to what is commonly associated with the Italian tenor's vocals. In vain would one seek in his Calaf the exultant arrogance of a Corelli (and his followers), or the Mediterranean colours that were quintessential to other past singers like Di Stefano or Pavarotti, or the ardour and direct communicativeness of a Carreras or Domingo. And yet… And yet, as he did with other Italian roles supposedly equally foreign to his personality, from Manrico to Radamès via Chénier, Kaufmann knows how to bring a role into his own territory, thanks to his unparalleled intelligence as a performer, as a musician of extraordinary stature. Having started with a cold, rather opaque voice, without the necessary presence (but to tell the truth, the opening chords of the orchestra were not the fullest and most unanimous to be heard on that evening), in “Non piangere Liù” he sings with extraordinary delicacy and emotion, and if the scene of the enigmas or the extensive final duet seem to lead him close to the limits of his vocal possibilities, especially as concerns his vocal projection, which is not imposing, the singing is of unobjectionable assurance, the high register responds in a solvent manner, and the expression is at all times just right and adequate, obtaining a juicy yield of the (very beautiful) baritonal timbre in order to portray the heroic side of the character, although the key to his triumph lies, as always, in the careful, poetic and internalised recreation of the text. One would not expect Kaufmann, as he did with Siegmund, to give Calaf's notes the transcendent intensity and colourful variety of the Lied, but he has indeed done so. Lastly, “Nessun dorma” is sung with as much confidence as abandon, with as much poise as elegance, and culminating in a broadly sustained high note.
For Sondra Radvanovsky, too, the part in Turandot is a debut in a major career. And one can hardly express any reservations about a recreation that in a way squares the circle. Radvanovsky has managed to situate the role within the coordinates of a genuinely Italian singing, not like the Elektra in Pechino we so often (resignedly) hear, but as an evolution or transformation of the Verdian heroines she has so successfully incorporated (Elena from I vespri siciliani, which was her calling card for so many years, but also Leonora from Il trovatore or Aida), and further back, of the Donizetti queens she has more recently approached. As with these characters, her Turandot is full of doubts and contradictory feelings, and the singer manages to convey this from her opening lines. Rarely in “In questa reggia” has it been perceived how the character experiences a burning longing for the possibility of giving herself to another, and at the same time a paralysing dread of that same eventuality. This Turandot is thus profoundly human, her initial aloofness a defence mechanism rather than a component of her nature ; and for this very reason, the final transformation is more believable and fuller, which also favours the use of Alfano's original version. There is in this dramatic situation, and there may be in this music and in this performance, it has already been evoked, something of the complex intermittency of feeling experienced by another Ice Princess like Brunhilde in the trance of giving herself to a mere mortal, in the course of the also concluding duet of Siegfried's third act. In the interpretative history of the work, other sopranos such as Joan Sutherland or Katia Ricciarelli had already approached the character of Turandot from an Italianate and Ottocentesque key reading, but these were approximations (or experiments, as they were formerly termed) for the disc, which were prudently not accompanied by a live performance ; and in any case, the vocal characteristics of the artists mentioned allow doubts about the viability on stage of their hypothetical incorporation of the role. In Radvanovsky's case, the instrument unfolds in all registers with a pure and simple overwhelming power, capable of overcoming with ease and without apparent effort the theoretically overwhelming presence of the choral and orchestral masses, and the gigantism of the hall becomes one more tool of her interpretation, insofar as the singer knows how to take advantage of the monumentality of a space in which her instrument can expand with a richness and exuberance that sets her apart from all her other colleagues. She even allows herself, in the concluding segment of the third act duet, to introduce a fascinating modulation on the word amore, perfectly calibrated, first reducing and then increasing the intensity of the utterance, a moment that would be enough in itself to explain the tortured psychology and the feeling of intimate liberation experienced by the character.
We insatiable music-lovers can only wait for the day when one or the other protagonist will decide to embody their respective roles in the theatre. For a few hours, this concert version of Turandot has transported us, beyond the concerns of the dark present we live in, into a haven of fantasy and beauty, from which we would not wish to escape.