Friday, April 26, 2013

“Perfect For Erfurt”

Coincident with the first American release of his Deutsche Grammophon recording of Puccini’s “Turandot” in 1982, Herbert Von Karajan gave an interview to an American newspaper reporter.

The newspaper reporter wanted to spend the time discussing Placido Domingo’s performance of Calaf (the newspaper reporter must have been a big Domingo fan) and Karajan played along with the reporter for a while—until Karajan had had enough and stopped the reporter and announced that Barbara Hendricks (in the role of Liu) was the sole satisfactory singer that had participated in his “Turandot” recording.

That amusing anecdote aside, the telling part of the interview was Karajan’s pronouncement that “Turandot” was not a successful opera. According to Karajan, the first act of “Turandot” was as fine as anything Puccini wrote, but everything after Act I went steadily downhill. During the interview, Karajan revealed that he had become bored by the project after Act I of the recording had been completed—Karajan’s “Turandot” was recorded in sequence—and the great conductor went on to admit that Acts II and III of his recording might with justification be disregarded if not for the contribution of Hendricks.

I fully understand Karajan’s position. Act I of “Turandot” is through-composed (and beautifully so), and stands alone as a satisfying musical and dramatic entity. Acts II and III, on the other hand, feature a couple of nice set pieces, but the musical and dramatic arcs of the latter acts are problematic—if not outright failures.

Had Puccini been in good health the final two years of his life, or had Puccini lived longer, I suspect he would have substantially revised Acts II and III (the latter remained unfinished at the composer’s death). As it is, music-lovers tolerate “Turandot” because of a great Act I and because of a handful of beautiful arias elsewhere. Nothing else about the opera is worth enduring; no one attends a performance of “Turandot” expecting genuine drama or a satisfying theatrical experience.

During a career lasting six decades, Karajan never conducted “Turandot” in the theater. Aside from the Deutsche Grammophon recording sessions, Karajan never went near the score. (In the opera house, Karajan, probably the finest Puccini conductor who ever lived, seldom conducted Puccini operas. Karajan gave a handful of performances of “La Boheme”, “Tosca” and “Madama Butterfly”—and touched nothing else from Puccini’s pen.)

I suspect what attracted Karajan to the prospect of recording “Turandot” was Puccini’s glorious and exotic instrumentation, the composer’s masterful harmonic scheme, and the modernistic elements Puccini had borrowed from Strauss, Debussy and Bartók. No matter what one thinks of Karajan’s “Turandot” recording (and the recording may be criticized on grounds other than casting), Karajan’s orchestral presentation of the score is a marvel. The conductor’s orchestral wizardry is on full and resplendent display, and that alone puts Karajan’s “Turandot” in a higher class than all other “Turandot” recordings.

Minnesota Opera offered eight performances of “Turandot” this month. My parents, my sister-in-law, and Joshua and I caught last Saturday night’s performance, the seventh performance of the run—and it was the orchestral presentation of Puccini’s score that rendered the performance out-of-court.

Minnesota Opera uses what is in effect a pickup orchestra—and a pickup orchestra cannot begin to do justice to the score of “Turandot”. Opulence and radiance of sound were absent; balancing was odd; everything was played at a louder-than-necessary volume; and the level of ensemble was not what it should have been.

The conductor, Michael Christie, did not exhibit a commanding grasp of the score. There was a start-and-stop quality to the whole proceeding. Nothing flowed naturally. There was no sense of musical progression, no sense of a destination. Most Christie tempi were a nudge too fast. Rhythms were stiff. The conductor displayed lots of energy, but little understanding of the Puccini idiom, which requires unending tension and relaxation.

I was disappointed. For some reason, I had believed “Turandot” might be right up Christie’s alley—and it was not.

The singers could not always be heard, which mattered not at all to me, as they were not pleasing.

Turandot was sung by a Russian soprano who has lived in the U.S. for the last sixteen years and who sings at insignificant houses in North America, Latin America and Europe. I found her to be not much of a singer and not much of an actress. (“Perfect for Erfurt” was my father’s summation of her skill level.)

Calaf was sung by a young American heldentenor whose career is just beginning. As singer and as stage animal, he was extremely rough around the edges, even ungainly.

Liu was sung by a Minnesota native who is engaged by Minnesota Opera over and over. In possession of a garden-variety voice of limited color and beauty, she offered a touching physical portrayal of the only sympathetic character in “Turandot”. (Liu was a pure invention of Puccini—there is no Liu in any of the source material on which Puccini’s “Turandot” is based; Puccini instructed his librettists to write Liu into the story—and Liu is given the best music in the score. In creating Liu, Puccini knew exactly what he was doing.)

Minnesota Opera’s physical production of “Turandot” was a triumph. The stage décor and costuming were extravagant for a small regional company; they impressed on a pure visceral level. The stage direction was extremely detailed and extremely lucid. A newcomer to “Turandot” might have followed the action with ease, and had no need to consult surtitles.

“Turandot” is an opera that today cannot adequately be cast. Only a handful of living conductors can do justice to the score. Only a dozen ensembles, if that, are capable of playing the score at a high level.

Given the impossible demands of “Turandot”, an extravagant and detailed physical production is not nothing.

The Franco Alfano ending, as edited (i.e., shortened) by Arturo Toscanini, was used.

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