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ClassicsOnline Home » PUCCINI: Turandot (Cigna, Merli, Olivero) (1938)
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Puccini was the last in a long line of Italian opera composers who dominated the lyric stage for more than a century, and Turandot was his final opera. It was also the last Italian opera to go straight into the repertoire after its première and it remains popular, three-quarters of a century after it was first heard. The adoption of the aria Nessun dorma! as a sort of football anthem has ensured that the work will retain its magic well into the 21st century.
As Prokofiev had done with The Love for Three Oranges, Puccini chose a Carlo Gozzi fairy tale as the basis for his opera. Busoni and Puccinis own teacher Bazzini had already made attempts at Turandot but their versions had not caught on. Puccini was well versed in orientalism from his work on Madama Butterfly and he was anxious to have a major success after the rather equivocal responses that his three one-acters, Il Trittico, and his operetta La Rondine had met with.
Puccini planned his opera, which he must have sensed would be his farewell to the stage, on the grandest scale. For the first time, he wrote for a genuine dramatic soprano and he surrounded this fabulous personage with what was for him an unusually wide variety of other characters. His earlier operas were perhaps too dependent on the leading soprano and tenor, but in Turandot he not only expanded his range of characterizations but also gave a much larger rôle to the chorus. Puccini also made a special effort to bring his musical style more up to date, without sacrificing the lyricism which was his main asset. As usual with him, the work went fairly slowly. Working with two librettists, the critic Giuseppe Adami and the playwright Renato Simoni, who had suggested the subject in March 1920 after he had rejected their offer of a Dickens adaptation, Puccini gave them no end of problems before the opera took shape. By March 1924 everything was composed and scored except the final fifteen minutes or so, in which the icy Princess Turandot would finally yield to the foreign Prince Calaf in a climactic love duet. By then Puccini was mortally ill with throat cancer and he did not live to resolve this admittedly major problem.
When the composer died in November 1924, the conductor Arturo Toscanini took charge of seeing to the completion of the opera. Franco Alfano, an excellent composer if no Puccini was given Puccinis sketches and asked to write the final duet. At the first performance in the Teatro alla Scala, Milan, on 25th April 1926, however, Toscanini stopped the performance after the death of the slave girl Liù, saying: At this point the master laid down his pen. The complete score was heard at the second performance and was duly published, but only comparatively recently has it been discovered that Alfanos ending was considerably altered, presumably by Toscanini.
The original cast included Rosa Raisa and Miguel Fleta, neither of whom recorded anything from their rôles, but among the fascinating supplementary material assembled here by Ward Marston is one of Liùs arias sung by the creator of that rôle, Maria Zamboni. The three marvellous La Scala character singers who sing the scene of the masks (a composite of discs from two different labels), Giuseppe Nessi, Emilio Venturini and Aristide Baracchi, also took part in the première, although Baracchi had a different rôle on that occasion.
The history of complete opera recordings in the 78rpm era was mostly created by Columbia and His Masters Voice, who in the late 1920s indulged in an almost suicidal rivalry, culminating in the ridiculous situation when both of them recorded Aida with La Scala forces, one after the other. Many of their recordings were made on such tight budgets that only one star singer could be engaged, and it was a miracle that so many of them turned out well. Cetra, which entered the fray in the late 1930s, worked on a different system, mainly choosing repertoire that the others had missed Norma, Turandot, La forza del destino, LAmico Fritz and casting luxuriously with the best available soloists, usually stars of La Scala. Only in the case of Lucia di Lammermoor did they compete with an existing recording, and their casting of radio specialists helped to make their set the version of choice. For this pioneering recording of Turandot, the cast could hardly have been improved on, and it was a long time before anyone even attempted a replacement. Once again everyone involved, including the conductor, was experienced in radio work, and often in studio recording too, so the sessions went well. Many sets in more up-to-date sound have come and gone, but none of them has significantly improved on the Cetra version, which has never been long out of the catalogue. The original set had an odd empty side which was filled with another late Puccini composition, the Inno a Roma.
Although not rated as one of the top Italian opera conductors, Franco Ghione (1889-1964) was a safe pair of hands and during a long international career worked with all the greatest singers. Born in Parma and trained there like Toscanini as a string player, he was the great mans assistant at La Scala in 1922-23 and then became a regular conductor at Italys leading house. From 1937 he worked in America as well as Europe. Record collectors know him mainly for this set, Pagliacci with Gigli and La Traviata with Callas. For Turandot he no doubt benefited from Toscaninis advice; at any rate he turns in a splendid performance.
Genevieve Gina Cigna (1900-2001) was born in Angères near Paris, daughter of an army general of Italian origin, and after studying piano and composition at the Conservatoire married the tenor Maurice Sens, who encouraged her to sing. She emerged from vocal studies with Emma Calvé as a mezzo, made her début at La Scala on 23rd January 1927 as Freia in Das Rheingold, billed as Genovieffa Sens, and after further study with Rosina Storchio and Giannina Russ became the leading spinto soprano in Italy. During a major international career taking in Covent Garden and the Met, she sang Turandot alone some five hundred times her main rival in the rôle was Eva Turner, who sings Turandots big scene in the Appendix. Cigna often appeared at the Rome Opera and was a favourite at La Scala until 1945. In 1947 her career was ended by a heart attack after a car accident but she lived to see her hundredth birthday celebrated by fans worldwide. She also recorded Norma for Cetra and her other great rôles included Aida and Gioconda. Among her pupils were Ghena Dimitrova and Lucia Valentini-Terrani.
Magda Olivero was born in 1910 in Saluzzo, and studied singing, piano and musicology at Turin Conservatory. She had a most unusual career. Her first seven major engagements, beginning in 1932, were for Italian Radio. The following year she made her operatic début in Gianni Schicchi, in her native city, and immediately started singing minor rôles at La Scala. Soon she was one of Italys leading lyric sopranos, noted for her acting ability, but after marrying in 1941 she retired. In 1946 she began to give occasional concerts and in 1951 she resumed her operatic appearances. The decades rest may have contributed to her artistic longevity, as she was still singing in concerts in the 1980s. Although she commanded a wide range of characterizations, she was especially admired in the title rôles of La Traviata, Tosca, Madama Butterfly and Adriana Lecouvreur. She still takes a lively interest in opera and musical life in general.
Francesco Merli (1887-1976) was one of two tenors who dominated La Scala in the interwar years the other was Aureliano Pertile, who can be heard singing Calafs arias in the Appendix. Of the two, Merli had the more robust voice, and although he lacked Pertiles histrionic ability, he was acclaimed in a similarly wide range of rôles. Born, bred and trained in Milan, he came second to Gigli in the 1914 Parma competition and made his operatic début that year in Milan, his début at La Scala coming three years later he sang there until 1946. He also appeared at the other major Italian venues, in Buenos Aires, Paris, London and New York. Calaf was one of his best rôles he sang in the Rome and London premières of Turandot. His Nessun dorma! here is not only better characterized but better in tune than Pavarottis hit version. He was a prolific recording artist. Having retired in 1950, he taught singing in Milan.
Gino del Signore (1906-78) was one of the most intelligent Italian lyric tenors, capable of taking leading or character parts. He studied piano and composition in his native Rome and singing at the Conservatorio Giuseppe Verdi, Milan. He sang on Italian Radio from 1932-57 and at La Scala from 1934-51, in concerts as well as opera, also appearing at other major Italian houses, Salzburg and Glyndebourne and making many recordings.
Adelio Zagonara was born in 1905 and specialised in character parts, which he sang with success all over Italy but especially in Rome, also appearing at La Scala (1939 and 1941), Paris (1935) and Covent Garden (1939 and 1946). He was regularly on Italian Radio from 1931 to 1963 and made many complete opera recordings.
Afro Poli (1902-1988) hailed from Rome and studied in Pisa, where he sang in the Cathedral choir, and in Milan. In 1927 he made his début in Pisa as Germont in La Traviata and for the next three decades he was in demand as a lyric baritone, renowned for his acting he made a film of Aida in which he acted while Gina Bechi sang, and another of Pagliacci in which he was the on-screen presence for the tenor Galliano Masini. He appeared regularly on Italian Radio from 1936 to 1965 and at La Scala from 1937 to 1955 and was a guest in many European cities. His complete opera recordings included Don Pasquale (with Schipa), La Bohème (with Gigli) and LElisir dAmore (with Noni, Valletti and Bruscantini). In later years he sang character rôles.
Luciano Neroni (1909-51) was the leading Italian bass of the generation after Pinza, Pasero and De Angelis. After study in Milan, he was encouraged by Gigli, making his concert début with the tenor and his opera début in Giglis home town Recanati, in 1933, the year of his first broadcast. He was regularly on air from 1937 to 1943 and 1946 to 1950. He sang opera at La Scala in 1940 and 1942, also appearing in concerts. After the war he was a favourite at the San Carlo, Naples, and the Rome Opera, and he was about to make his début at the Metropolitan in New York when he died of a heart attack in his native Ripatransone.
 The opera opens by the walls of the great city of Peking. To the right is a portico decorated with carved figures of monsters, unicorns and a phoenix, with pillars rising from the backs of huge tortoises. Below the portico a great gong is suspended, while on the ramparts the heads of victims are displayed. It is sunset and a crowd in the square listens to the words of a Mandarin announcing that Turandot will marry the man of royal lineage who can answer her three riddles; he who tries and fails will be beheaded. The Prince of Persia has failed the test and will die when the moon rises. The crowd disperses in excitement at the prospect of an execution, rushing towards the palace, only to pushed roughly back by the Tartar guards. Among the people is the old man Timur, exiled King of Tartary, who falls, as his servant-girl Liù calls for help. Prince Calaf runs up, recognising his father and helping him to his feet. Twelve executioners assistants make their way forward, as the crowd eagerly awaits the coming execution. Timur is delighted to have found his son again and Calaf asks about Liù, who has remained loyal to the old King, persuaded by a smile Calaf had once bestowed on her in the palace.  The crowd calls for the executioners sword to be sharpened and all is excitement.  The crowd now watches the sky, waiting for the moon, the sign of execution, as it rises. The voices of children are heard.  The procession leading the young Prince of Persia to execution enters, now arousing pity in the people, who call on Turandot to grant pardon. She appears, and the people bow down, leaving only the Prince of Persia and Calaf standing. Turandot has no mercy and with a gesture rejects any appeal for clemency, and the procession moves off. Calaf, however, is dazzled by the sight of her beauty, as he and Timur, with Liù, are left alone.  Timur asks his son what he is doing, but Calaf is resolved to take his chance as a suitor. The sound of the execution is heard and Timur continues to try to dissuade his son from this enterprise. He is about to sound the gong to proclaim his intention, when he is prevented by three masked figures, Ping, Pang and Pong, who warn him of the cruel fate that will be his.
 A group of palace handmaidens lean down over the balustrade and call for silence, as Turandot sleeps. Ping, Pang and Pong continue to try to dissuade Calaf and the shadows of those who have died in pursuit of the Princess add their own urging. Calaf breaks away and is about to strike the gong, when the executioner appears above the rampart, holding the head of the Prince of Persia. Timur pleads further with his son.  Now Liù adds her own pleas, tearfully begging him to desist, for her sake and that of his father. She falls to the ground in tears.  Calaf urges her not to weep and tells her to take Timur away with her into the country.  Timur begs him, for the last time, and is joined by Liù, Ping, Pang and Pong in his endeavour to save his son from certain death. Calaf is determined, and, breaking away, sounds the gong three times.
 In a great pavilion Ping, Pang and Pong are preparing for whatever may happen, either a wedding or a funeral. Now saddened by Turandots behaviour, they lament the fate of China. They sit and examine the scrolls for the numbers of victims.  Ping sings of his house in Honan, and all three would like to be away from the palace in their own parts of the countryside.
 They lament the state of the world and the madness of lovers, recalling those who have died, princes from Samarkand, from India, from Burma and other countries. They long for an end to their difficulties.
 Trumpets are heard, heralding the start of a new trial for the hand of Turandot.
 In the square in front of the palace the crowd gradually gathers. In the centre is a great marble staircase leading upwards, to end under a triple arch. Mandarins arrive, dressed in blue and gold, and finally the Emperor, who announces that he is bound by his oath to honour the compact he has made with Turandot. Calaf steps forward, ready to try his luck, in spite of the Emperors obvious reluctance to see more bloodshed. The crowd honours the Emperor.  A Mandarin steps forward and proclaims the royal decree. Turandot shall marry the one of royal lineage who can solve her three riddles; the unsuccessful will die. The voices of children are heard.  Turandot, impassive as a golden statue, takes her place at the foot of the Imperial throne. She looks coldly at the Prince and recounts the reason for her vow, the fate of Princess Lou Ling, captured, tortured and put to death at the hands of a man.  She will have her revenge on the suitors that come to woo her and never yield to a man. Calaf is defiant, ready to solve Turandots riddles.
 The trumpets sound, and Turandot proceeds. Her first riddle is of something that in the night hovers, a shining phantom, soaring above the crowd, invoked by all, but vanishing at dawn to be reborn in every heart. Calaf declares that the answer is hope. Her second riddle is of something that is aflame and yet then cold, which Calaf guesses is blood.  Turandot descends further down the stairs to pose her third riddle of ice given by fire, and fire that produces ice, a force that would make you free, but yet enslaves and makes you king. Calaf sees that the answer to this is Turandot.
 In anguish Turandot ascends the stairs again, demanding that her father, the Emperor, prevent her marriage to this stranger, but the Emperor has given his oath and will not hear her pleading. Calaf, however, wants Turandot burning with love.  He now offers his own riddle, his name, which she must find before morning; if she succeeds, he will die. Turandot assents and Calaf ascends the stairs towards the Emperor, whose praises the people now sing.
 It is night in the palace gardens. To the right is a pavilion, with a richly embroidered curtain, the ante-chamber to Turandots quarters in the palace. Heralds announce the decree that none shall sleep on pain of death, as a search is made for the strangers name.  Calaf echoes the words, singing of love and of his name that none shall discover; at daybreak Turandot shall be his.  Ping, Pong and Pang emerge from the bushes, followed by other figures. They ask Calaf to say what he wants; if it is love, then he offers girls that he now leads forward; if it is riches, then they can offer gold and precious stones; if it is glory, he may escape to rule the Empire from afar. They fear for their own safety, since they face torture and death if the Princes name is not revealed. They end by threatening Calaf with their daggers. Shouting is heard, as soldiers drag in Timur and Liù, two who must know the Princes name.  Turandot appears, and they bow down to the ground, except for Ping, who comes forward to tell her that they now have the means to discover the Princes name. Calaf claims that Timur and Liù know nothing, but Liù steps forward and tells Turandot that she alone knows the strangers name and will keep it secret. Calaf tries to protect her and on Turandots orders is bound, while Liù is tortured, claiming love as the reason for her strength in resistance.  She is happy to suffer for her beloved Prince, as the executioner is called for.  Eventually she agrees to answer the icy-hearted Princess, telling her that, as she herself dies, so Turandot will be conquered by love. She seizes a dagger from a soldier and stabs herself, staggering forward to fall dead at Calafs feet.  Timur hobbles forward and kneels down by her, begging her to open her eyes, as dawn approaches. He prophesies divine vengeance, and Liùs body is carried away to the awe of the crowd, seeking pardon for this violence. Timur follows, as the people lament Liùs fate.  Calaf and Turandot are left alone, she rigid as a statue and veiled. Calaf calls on this Princess of death and of ice to descend to earth. He rushes forward and tears off her veil, to Turandots anger; he may tear her veil but not touch her soul. The Prince takes Turandot in his arms, and draws her towards the pavilion, kissing her, but she draws away, now seeking his pity.  Calaf declares his love for her, as dawn breaks; he has conquered and her heart has melted. For the first time now she sheds tears, telling him of her first fear of him. Finally Calaf reveals to her his name.
 The scene is outside the palace. The Emperor sits enthroned at the head of a wide marble staircase. Around him are his courtiers, wise men and soldiers. The crowds gather below, singing praise to the Emperor. Turandot now tells her father that she knows the name of the stranger; his name is love. Calaf runs up to her, embracing her, while the crowd scatters flowers and rejoices at the happy outcome.
The Italian record company, Cetra was formed during the late 1930s to promote Italian music and musicians. The companys name is actually an acronym for Compagnia edizioni, teatro, registrazioni, ed affini. Prior to the outbreak of World War II, Cetra produced complete recordings of three operas, Bellinis Norma, Donizettis Lucia di Lammermoor, and Puccinis Turandot. These productions featured top ranking singers and great attention was given to every detail of the recording process. What is peculiar about these productions is that Cetra entered into an arrangement by which the Parlophone-Odeon company would press the discs and distribute these recordings world wide. I have encountered scores of Cetra pressings but never any of these three complete opera sets. In fact, one only sees these recordings on English Parlophone pressings which are notorious for their high crackle content.
In remastering this recording of Turandot, I was fortunate to have located several Parlophone sets which yielded quieter than average surfaces. A variety of styli were employed to minimize the inherent distortion during forte passages. Further noise reduction has been accomplished by a judicious application of the CEDAR de-crackling algorithm. A certain amount of crackle still remains but I feel that any further intervention would have adversely affected the sound of the original recording.
In 1997 Ward Marston was nominated for the Best Historical Album Grammy Award for his production work on BMGs Fritz Kreisler collection. According to the Chicago Tribune, Marstons name is synonymous with tender loving care to collectors of historical CDs. Opera News calls his work revelatory, and Fanfare deems him miraculous. In 1996 Ward Marston received the Gramophone award for Historical Vocal Recording of the Year, honouring his production and engineering work on Romophones complete recordings of Lucrezia Bori. He also served as re-recording engineer for the Franklin Mints Arturo Toscanini issue and BMGs Sergey Rachmaninov recordings, both winners of the Best Historical Album Grammy. Born blind in 1952, Ward Marston has amassed tens of thousands of opera classical records over the past four decades. Following a stint in radio while a student at Williams College, he became well-known as a reissue producer in 1979, when he restored the earliest known stereo recording made by the Bell Telephone Laboratories in 1932. In the past, Ward Marston has produced records for a number of major and specialist record companies. Now he is bringing his distinctive sonic vision to bear on recordings released on the Naxos Historical label. Ultimately his goal is to make the music he remasters sound as natural as possible and true to life by lifting the voices off his old 78rpm recordings. His aim is to promote the importance of preserving old recordings and make available the works of great musicians who need to be heard.
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PUCCINI: Turandot (Cigna, Merli, Olivero) (1938)