Italian opera as is currently practiced began with Rossini and ended with Puccini. All the Italian operas in the standard repertory were written between 1813 and 1924 – a little more than a century, a blink in the history of art. The last of these operas is Turandot. A magnificent achievement left incomplete at Puccini’s death in 1924 secondary to cancer and medical incompetence. That Puccini could write such a great work incorporating all the latest fads and trends in early 20th century music while sounding like himself is itself a feat. That he could also win the the hearts of his audience is astounding. His accomplishment shows that the failure of subsequent operas to resonate with opera goers is solely the fault of the composers that followed him. The audience is not to blame, nor is modern musical language. Composers of genius, if they still exist, are not writing opera.
The finale to Turandot’s first act starts with two short arias, the first by the slave girl Liu (hopelessly in love with Calaf, the tenor) followed by Calaf’s response which in turn leads to a gargantuan ensemble consisting of multiple soloists and a large chorus. When properly sung and played it makes a grand effect.
The first recording of this opera was made in 1938, just 12 years after its premiere. The 27 year old Magda Olivero was a fluttery voiced Liu. The soprano lived until age 104 and made her Met debut when she was 65. The tenor was Francesco Merli who was one of the leading heavy spintos of the inter war generation. He too came to the Met after his best years were over. He sang just one season at the house. Franco Ghione was the conductor. Olivero Merli Turandot Act 1 finale
Renata Tebaldi and Mario Del Monaco made a studio recording of Turandot in 1955. The underrated Alberto Erede conducted. Del Monaco had everything needed for the stentorian Tartar prince. Tebaldi voice was perfect for Liu; it had not yet taken on the shrillness that characterized the second half of her career. Tebaldi Del Monaco Turandot Act 1 finale
Tebaldi recorded Liu again in 1959, this time with Jussi Björling as the tenor. Erich Leinsdorf conducted. This was the first of several recordings that featured Birgit Nilsson in the title role. It was she and her usual partner in sound, Franco Corelli, who established the opera as one of the most popular in the world. Tebaldi is still in splendid voice on this recording. Björling would never have sung Calaf onstage, but a foot from a microphone and he is virtually peerless. Tebaldi Björling Turandot Act 1 finale
As just mentioned above, Franco Corelli owned the part of Calaf. This excerpt is taken from a 1964 performance at La Scala. Galina Vishnevskaya is a very convincing Liu. Gianandrea Gavazzeni conducted. Note the dueling claques. Vishnevskaya Corelli Turandot Act 1 finale
The most sumptuously conducted recording of the opera is that made by Herbert von Karajan in 1981. Barbara Hendricks and Placido Domingo are the soloists. Hendricks Domingo Turandot Act 1 finale
Finally a Zambon bonbon. The atomic bomb voiced tenor is still holding the final ‘Turandot’ from a 1980 performance in Bari. This excerpt begins with ‘Non piangere Liu‘ and continues to the act’s conclusion.