, October 2004
"Naxos have been enormously successful in producing good recordings selling at affordable prices. In so doing they make valuable classical music (and many other genres) available to both impecunious beginners and jaded collectors. During the last few years they have been increasingly adventurous in choice of repertoire; according to their own advertising they are the company worldwide which issues most premiere recording. They also have educational ambitions. They are meeting a real need. I know that there are classical music snobs who look down upon populistic behaviour such as giving spoken introductions at live concerts. However, having done that myself for many years I know that the general music lover (as opposed to the "expert") appreciates that. I have heard people say for example: "If you hadnt given me the background to that Berio-piece I would have thought it was just noisy; now when I listened I found so many beautiful things that I would like to hear it again. Where can I get a recording?" That my constant answer is: "Not in this town, anyway." is another story. So I applaud this Naxos initiative. Obviously many others also do, since they continue to release this type of disc.
I havent heard any of these "Opera explained"records before but I see in the booklet that there is a long list. All the presentations are written by Thomson Smillie and narrated by David Timson. If they are all as good as this present Turandot, which I have good reason to believe, Naxos are to be congratulated for another success.
It isnt very easy, maybe not even necessary, to make a detailed track-by-track analysis, so I will confine myself to a few general remarks. To begin with I feel that Mr Smillie has the right attitude to the listeners. He isnt "talking down" to us, nor does he take it for granted that we know a lot of music history or musicology. He isnt afraid of using the correct terminology, but he explains it.
In this case he has a very obvious starting point: a well-known tune. Can there be anyone, however ignorant of opera, who hasn’t heard Nessun dorma. So he lets us hear a couple of snippets from the aria and then places Puccini and Turandot in a historical context, which means that after the first quarter of an hour we are quite well informed of the development of opera where Puccini is the last "big" name in a 300-year-long golden line of composers.
After that we follow the plot from the start of the opera to the final bars – composed not by Puccini, who died before he had time to finish his work, but by Franco Alfano, who mainly tried to complete Puccini’s sketches.
I didn’t make many notes while I listened; I just enjoyed hearing David Timson’s narration, so right in tone, sprinkled with well-chosen musical examples, and found myself nodding approvingly time after time. After this more than hour-long journey through Puccini’s score I felt I had got a deeper understanding of the music – and the drama. I believe that to someone coming new to this opera it will be a real eye-opener. Personally I went straight to letter P in my opera collection and took out the almost 40-year-old Molinari-Pradelli recording with Birgit Nilsson and Franco Corelli and played parts of it. I wish I had had the time to play it from start to end, but I had to write this review before midnight. I just dipped into it, listening to Nilsson’s magnificent In questa reggia and Liù’s Tu che di gel sei cinta before jumping to the final pages. All this is in surprisingly good sound, definitely better than Naxos’s, and with much more space around orchestra and voices. This is important in such a "big" opera.
And that leads me over to Naxos’s musical extracts. I had seen a couple of reviews of the complete recording, one very positive, one decidedly negative. And my view? It isn’t easy to give a verdict from just these short excerpts, but I like Rahbari’s conducting. He seems eager to get things going, wanting to get the answers to the riddles maybe? Of the singers Lando Bartolini has almost all the notes well within his reach and sounds heroic although a bit strained. Turandot herself, Giovanna Casolla, has sung many a Turandot before; she took part in those historic performances in Peking (as it once was) which also were recorded and released by RCA some years ago. Few sopranos, Nilsson excepted, can go on singing this devilish part without having their voices affected. In Casolla’s case it is that big vibrato that sometimes makes you wonder: what note is she aiming at? I heard her, almost 20 years ago, when she must have been quite young, singing Maddalena in Andrea Chenier in Verona, and I have no recollections of a wobbler then. Anyway, she isn’t bad at all, and it is a big voice. Still, when the commentary says that a Turandot needs a voice like a laser-beam to cut through the thick textures of the orchestra, what we hear is rather like the hooting of a fire-siren. Listen to Nilsson and there you have the laser!
But don’t be misled by this carping. On the whole I liked very much what I heard. Another asset is the humorous approach from writer and narrator alike. Turandot is a serious opera, but a smile or two in the middle of all the chill and violence isn’t at all out of place. Puccini liked a good laugh and in most of his mature operas there are comic parts: La Bohème, Tosca, Madama Butterfly, La Fanciulla del West and – of course – Ping, Pang and Pong in this opera.
Even if you think you know your Turandot you will get much pleasure out of this disc; if you are a beginner in the field, it is a must! And I will try to find some other records in this same series – but of course not in this town.
And now I have to go back to my CD-player and hear the rest of Turandot before midnight."