CD Review: Sondra Radvanovsky & Jonas Kaufmann’s ‘Turandot’

By Bob Dieschburg

There is no shortage of good and, sometimes, exceptional recordings of Puccini’s “Turandot,” with aficionados generally swaying between Molinari-Pradelli’s studio release (with Franco Corelli and Birgit Nilsson) and Mehta’s landmark take from 1972. Add to this Franco Ghione and, in excerpts, Barbirolli’s visceral “Turandots” from the pre-war period, and nearly all aspects of Puccini’s swan song – from the ritualistic and bombastic to the sweet and lyric – are covered in a discography that now spans some 90-odd years.

One may therefore ask how Sir Antonio Pappano’s newest release for Warner Classics fits in. It is, in short, a dauntless vision he sets forth, as it relentlessly exploits the gap between the ceremonial of the court scenes and the intimacy as much as the conflicts of the individual characters involved.

Within this context, I have seldom heard an orchestra express more dynamism than in the present release: It plays a constitutive part not only in the narrative progression but also in Pappano’s interest in situating “Turandot” on the brink of modernity, between change and tradition, and with marked concern for psychological development. The latter even extends to the decision of recording the finale without its customary cuts, giving unprecedented opportunity for the emotional reversal of the Princess to unfold.

In the Wake of Modernity

In line with a musicological rethinking of the Puccini scores, “Turandot” has, in recent years, emancipated itself from the reactionary lens under which critics have begrudgingly eyed its fortunes, tied—to quote the title of a 1991 study—to the “end of the great tradition” of Italian opera.

It has since emerged that, rather than being an endpoint, its score marks the permeation of modernist elements into the musical vocabulary of early 20th century Italy, with Puccini harking to the tonal innovations of Schönberg, Stravinsky, and Strauss, to name but a few.

Within this context, the polarity of “Turandot” asserts itself as a leitmotif which Pappano triumphantly puts to the test. In no other version is the contrast between international modernism and italianità more deeply felt, yet never has it been more essential to the overall listening experience.

Take the startling effect of the tympani to mark the bloodthirsty propulsion of “Gira la cote” or the clarinet’s ornament to the narcotic, if not overtly morbid andante of “Perché tarda la luna?” To my knowledge, they are positively disruptive, and the boldness with which Pappano carves them out of the orchestral texture is unheard of.

The same holds true for the violence with which a bitonal chord strikes the Mandarin’s opening lines, not to mention the whole of the finale in which the tonal and dramatic vocabulary of the German School transpires to ever new configurations and diaphanous harmonies. Here, “Turandot” is being reestablished at the forefront of the operatic avant-garde in Italy.

On the other hand, there is plenty to relish in terms of melodic buildup. For instance, the grandiose finale of act one takes on all the qualities of a symphonic experience, Pappano being slightly slower than Mehta but more stringent altogether than Karajan in 1981.

The orchestral detail sounds more plastic and constitutive to the situational dynamics than in any other version I can think of. The flute’s delicately tuned scale ornament to Kaufmann’s diminuendo on ‘fanciulla’ is a sheer marvel to listen to, as it perfectly shows Pappano’s intention to have the score’s modernity coexist with the lushness of the typical Puccinian melodies.

“None Shall Sleep” to Jonas Kaufmann

Other than the excellent forces of the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, the British star conductor had at his disposal Jonas Kaufmann in the role of Prince Calaf.

From his very first lines, it appears that his voice has become grainier and less rounded than in his last full operatic studio production, Verdi’s “Otello” from 2020. It does not have the full body of a heldentenor’s tone anymore, yet it has preserved all its softness in the mezza voce register, which Kaufmann amply puts on display.

Moments like his reveling in the beauty of Turandot (“O divina bellezza”) are full of a morbid intensity akin to the sentiments he expressed in the 2019 run of Korngold’s “Die tote Stadt.” Overall, however, some congeniality lacking, the timbre not matching the luminosity traditionally associated with the role, and the phrasing being good but not nearly up to Kaufmann’s own standards of psychological insight.

I take as an example the transition from the exclamatory “Uno soltanto a te ne proporrò” to the moderato sostenuto of the violins’ introducing the theme of “Nessun dorma” at the end of Act two. Pappano again demonstrates the contrast between modernity and tradition with the music moving from a percussion-heavy backdrop to a pure line of melody entirely driven by the strings, in true Puccini fashion.

Strangely, Kaufmann does relatively little to capitalize on this moment of introspection, which I have always found to be among the most beautiful in all of “Turandot.” The phrasing of “Il mio nome non sai” is not entirely lyric nor conveys the same sense of spontaneity, almost naivety, as Pavarotti’s in the 1972 recording from Decca. There sure is a memorable diminuendo on ‘morirò’ but the effect remains somewhat arbitrary.

One has to wait for his “Nessun dorma” to retrieve the German tenor at his customary best. Here, he is sensitive and more poetic than in his 2015 recital, modulating the heroic, including the high B, with considerable prowess.

Radvanovsky Cloaked in Ice

On the other hand, the Turandot of Sondra Radvanovsky takes up nearly every expectation the performance history has more or less definitively bestowed upon the part. She is an imperious ruler, both vocally and dramatically, with a fair amount of the proverbial steel in her voice, making the exhortation of “Straniero, ascolta” a terrifying start to the riddle scene.

Similarly, “In questa reggia” is being navigated with palpable ease. Even the most casual of listeners will hear some of Birgit Nilsson’s shadow in the crystal clear phrasing leading up to “quel grido e quella morte.” This does not prevent her from surprising with technical feats like including a series of diminuendos to the repeated urging of “Tua figlia è sacra,” transforming Puccini’s marking con ribellione into a heart-wrenching plea.

As with Kaufmann, there are moments, however, in which the dramatic intensity subsides, notably in the third act. Radvanovsky’s ‘su parla, vecchio’ and her subsequent retort of ‘vedremo’ are less cynical than anticipated in light of her imperiousness in the riddle scene.

This does not tarnish her truly excellent performance overall, as with the end of Puccini’s original score, the music moves towards a more Germanic concept of cleansing (“poi Tristano” in Puccini’s own words, shortly before his death) in which the aura of the Ice Princess is progressively breaking down.

A Formidable Liù and Supporting Cast

The cast is completed by Ermonela Jaho’s harrowing portrayal of the enslaved girl Liù. With her characteristically fast vibrato, every syllable of her delicately molded “Signore, ascolta” sounds like the fluttering of an anguished heart. Technically, she is in full control: from her emphatic phrasing to the infinitely subtle filature of ‘ah, pietà.’ The same feat she repeats in her farewell aria of “Tu, che di gel sei cinta.”

With Michele Pertusi, the release boasts a sympathetic and careworn Timur. Michael Spyres lends his lush baritenor to the small part of the Emperor while the trio of Mattia Olivieri, Gregory Bonfatti, and Siyabonga Maqungo fill the semi-comedic roles of Ping, Pong, and Pang in admirable fashion, attentive to the stiltedness of their commedia dell’arte-style characters yet less memorable, vocally, than their counterparts in the already mentioned Decca recording.

The 21st-Century “Turandot”

How, then, is the Warner Classics release to be situated? It proposes a novel approach, thriving on the stylistic and, to some degree, ideological contrast between the Italian tradition and the tonal experiments of mainly transalpine composers, Strauss and Stravinsky being perhaps the most instantly recognizable ones.

Pappano aims to capture this polarity in every imaginable way, from inducing stark variations in his tempi to nearly overstressing the effect of the brass and percussion instruments. His take is symphonic in nature but built less on a vision of overarching homogeneity (like Karajan) than on a palimpsest of markedly disparate elements. With Jonas Kaufmann and Sondra Radvanovsky, he is at the helm of two vocally impressive singers who, for the most part, impressed with their technical abilities. When it comes to details, I would sometimes have wanted them to be more boldly imaginative.

Only time will tell whether this is a “Turandot” for the ages. What is sure, however, is that it will leave its impact on the performing standards of Puccini’s swan song for many years to come.


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