Can it really be that good? It’s a question many of us ask when we encounter multiple critics unreservedly praising the new Warner Classics recording of Giacomo Puccini’s unfinished final opera, Turandot. Performed by the Orchestra and Chorus of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome and conducted by Antonio Pappano, the album stars soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, tenor Jonas Kaufmann, and soprano Ermonela Jaho. Recorded in hi-resolution, it is one of the few two-channel studio recordings of a complete opera to appear on a major label in our era of live-performance surround-sound Blu-ray.
Short answer: yes. The performance and recording are sensational. Every line contributed by the chorus, recorded unmasked but widely spaced while the pandemic was still peaking during the first quarter of 2022, is sung with feeling and emotion. The climaxes, captured superbly by recording engineer Clémence Fabre, are huge and fully honor the power and grandeur of Puccini’s conception. For air, space, and clarity, if not soundstage width, this recording rivals the best Turandots on record.
The biggest revelation among the principals is Radvanovsky as the titular ice princess who struggles until the end to avoid melting with love. Drawing on the technique that she has honed through decades of bel canto vocalism, Radvanovsky softens her voice in passages that other sopranos sing with steel, yet she blasts out her high Bs and Cs in tones that could convince the dead to stay put. Equipped with all the power, ice, and fire the role demands, as well as the intelligence to vary her sound, she is marvelous.
If forced to choose between Radvanovsky and Birgit Nilsson (on either of her two major label recordings), I’d go with Radvanovsky for her greater variety of tone and more filled-out character. (Note to Nilsson lovers: Multiple live versions of her in the role can be found.) And as sensational as Joan Sutherland was, conducted by Zubin Mehta in a landmark recording that also includes Luciano Pavarotti and Montserrat Caballé in their prime, Radvanovsky has far better diction and a more imaginative approach.
Kaufmann’s Prince Calaf is a bit problematic. After singing many heavy roles, darkness has replaced freshness in his voice. The attractiveness in his rock-solid voice here — he’d just turned 52 before recording — lies mainly in his convincing delivery, intact musicality, steely top, and ability to soften to relative sweetness in passages where you least expect it.
In Calaf’s showstopper aria, “Nessun dorma,” tempos have a flexibility rarely encountered since the lighter-voiced Jussi Björling first recorded the number (with the Stockholm Symphony Orchestra under Nils Grevillius in 1944). Kaufmann’s interpretation of the aria is one of the high points of this recording. It’s also available in a bonus single-take version with orchestra. According to one critic, Kaufmann sounded overpowered in the live concert performance that followed soon after the recording session. On record, however, where levels can be adjusted, he sounds ideally powerful.
As Liù, the slave girl who sacrifices herself for love, Jaho offers a light but exceptionally moving voice that reportedly carries well in the hall. The drama inherent in her vibrato is right in line with recordings from the original Liù, the extremely emotive Maria Zamboni, and Jaho’s softly floated high tones are extremely beautiful. She’s a major asset.
The recording has another revelation. Pappano opts for the original, rarely heard Franco Alfano completion of the score, which includes 100 measures of music that were dropped at the insistence of the opera’s first conductor, Arturo Toscanini. The missing sections make far greater sense of Turandot’s transformation and bring the love that is the foundation of the opera to the forefront.
I’ve previously viewed Turandot as a somewhat flawed, overly long vocal showpiece whose identity as the final flowering of Puccini’s genius shields it from criticism. Despite the showstopper arias and the splendor of the opera’s full-voiced choruses, we roll our eyes as Turandot suddenly melts and the chorus celebrates her union with Calaf.
Not here. For once, I was deeply moved by Liù’s sacrifice, Calaf’s bullheaded determination, and love’s triumph. Pappano performs miracles in this recording. That he succeeds through sound and music alone, without visual assistance, makes the recording all the more extraordinary.