A plea for correct opera casting and three recordings that didn't
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Sherrill Milnes has often sung Barnaba on stage. Here he is in generally good voice, offering the only real touch of traditional authenticity in the performance. Nicola Ghiaurov is lavishly cast as Alvise. In all, it is a good recording for the '80s, without erasing memories of most other past recordings of the opera. The true weakness is Bruno Bartoletti's erratic, unsympathetic conducting. He rushes where one should luxuriate, dawdles where haste is required. And he generally makes musical decisions that have no justification in the music. However, the National Philharmonic Orchestra plays handsomely for him.Skip to next paragraph
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Puccini's ''Turandot'' is the province of dramatic sopranos on stage. In the studio, Joan Sutherland made an impressive stab at the part, but her career began as a Wagnerian singer, and the instrument itself possesses weight and size. A few years back, Angel records issued a ''Turandot'' with Miss Caballe, Mirella Freni, Jose Carreras, (all of whom have sung their roles on stage). Alain Lombard conducted. The recording was a miscalculation on all levels. The singers - even the remarkable Miss Freni - were in poor voice. Miss Caballe should never have been singing the role, and the conducting was inferior.
Herbert von Karajan has now decided that Turandot is really the province of lyric sopranos, and he has given the role to Katia Ricciarelli on his new recording (Deutsche Grammophon digital 2741 013). Miss Ricciarelli is in the throes of a dreadful vocal crisis, which this role only exacerbates. A once-attractive voice has in a mere five or six years become an unmanageable, wobbly, ill-tuned instrument. This follows from her insistence on singing roles far beyond her vocal means. That she never offered a strong artistic profile or sense of musical identity has been evident both on records and on the opera stage. That lack finds her at a particular disadvantage in the role of the imperious Princess Turandot.
It hardly helps that von Karajan draws every tempo out to near-stasis and generally lets the gorgeous Vienna Philharmonic overpower the sound stage. Mr. Domingo is the Calaf. In some pages, he is ringingly fine. In others, he is forcedly out of tune (no doubt in different form at different recording sessions). Barbara Hendricks is the fragile Liu, and she is overtaxed from beginning to end: Much of her singing is lovely, if somewhat monochromatic. Rarely does von Karajan allow her the sort of tempo that enables her to phrase naturally and expressively.
The orchestral contributions are unquestionably dazzling. This is the only recording of the work to get across the sense of oppressive weariness in the music, a sense that the barbarity of the Peking people is enforced and wearying. Everyone in the opera is oppressed by burdens, and von Karajan communicates this oppression stunningly well.
In the end, it is the most beautiful recording of the opera orchestrally, even if there are some surprising mistakes in the playing that indicate haste in the sessions. Also, in a shockingly poor tape splice, Miss Hendricks actually sings one-half of Turandot's phrase, while Miss Ricciarelli sings the other half! Nevertheless, vocally the set is so seriously compromised that even such lavish bit-casting as Siegmenund Nimsgern's Mandarin go for naught.
If the trends continue that two of the three above-mentioned recordings reflect, any sense of authenticity in opera will vanish from the recording scene - and eventually the stage - sooner than anyone would have imagined. A quick change back to saner practices is, with apologies to the Bard, a transformation devoutly to be wished.