PUCCINI: Turandot
Giovanna Casolla, soprano (Turandot); Barbara Frittoli, soprano (Liú); Sergei Larin, tenor (Calaf); Carlo Colombara, bass (Timur); Aldo Bottion, tenor (Emperor); Orchestra and Chorus of Maggio Musicale Fiorentino/Zubin Mehta, cond.
RCA VICTOR 60617 (2 CDs) (F) (DDD) TT: 52:48 & 57:18  

There was much hoopla about the huge production of Puccini's Turandot presented in "the fabled Forbidden City of Beijing," where the opera takes place. Long in planning, the production was created at Florence's Teatro Communale for the Maggio Musicale Festival this past spring, then the entire production was moved to Beijing for eight performances in September 1998 in the authentic setting, the ancestral Ming Dynasty palace, which dates back to the year 1604. It is said that about 1,500 newly-made costumes were created for the occasion, and in place of a stage curtain hand-decorated panels covered with red and gold-leaf were used. Obviously this was a very expensive undertaking, a joint production between three Bertelsmann Companies, BMG Classics, CLT-UFA and its German production subsidiary UFA Film and TV Production. The production also is being issued on VHS and DVD video. There were three casts for the eight performances. It is reported "over 32,000 people" attended the open-air performances. This is perhaps questionable: there were reports that the ticket prices were so high that that it was virtually impossible for the Chinese general public to attend, and there were many empty seats. Doubtless the video presentations will be intriguing indeed, but on CD all we can judge is the performance and sonic quality. Reportedly there were three different casts for the eight performances and one can understand the difficulty in coordinating schedules with the best of today's singers. The cast heard here is adequate but little more. Giovanna Casolla is taxed by the leading role. She starts "In questa reggia" unsteadily, improves considerably as the opera progresses. Sergei Larin is an adequate Calaf, but does not have the heroic sound the role demands. Barbara Frittoli is the finest of the three princpals, presenting a moving interpretation of the slave girl. The orchestra and chorus are fine under Zubin Mehta's direction, but overall this is not a convincing performance of Puccini's masterpiece.

The difficulties of recording an opera outdoors have been overcome; there is little resonance to the orchestra, but a reasonable balance between soloists, orchestra and chorus. For some reason RCA does not give any timings on the CDs. There are photos of the four principals, but no information about them (but lots about Mehta). The booklet does provide detailed notes about the conception of Turandot and a detailed history of its development.

There are a number of superb recordings of Turandot: Top of the list would be Birgit Nilsson's two recordings (with Bjoerling/Tebaldi on RCA; Corelli/Scotto on EMI), followed by Joan Sutherland (with Caballé/Pavarotti on London) and, for the historic-minded, Gina Cigna (with Oliviero/Merli on Arkadia) or Inge Borkh (with Tebaldi/Del\ Monaco on London). I'm looking forward to the video of the Beijing production; it must really be something to see if not necessarily to listen to.

R.E.B.(Sept. 1999)