In Search of Turandot

ItalyItaly  Puccini, Turandot.  Orchestra and Chorus of Teatro dell’Opera, Rome. Chorus Master, Roberto Gabbiani.  Conductor, Pinchas Steinberg.  31.10.2013 (JB)

Stage Direction by Roberto De Simone (rehearsed by Mariano Bauduin) from Teatro Petruzzelli, Bari

Sets by Nicola Rubertelli, Costumes by Odette Nicoletti; Lighting by Agostino Angelini.

Turandot  – Evelyn Herlizius
The Emperor Altoum  – Chris Merrittt
King Timur  – Roberto Tagliavini
Calaf, his son  – Kamen Chanev
Liù, a young slave  – Maija Kovalevska
Ping, Pang and Pong by Simone Del Savio, Saverio Fiore and Gregory Bonfatti

Eva Turner sang Turandot so many times she became known as Eva Turnerdot. Her Aida and Sieglinde were equally impressive but it was as Turandot that she won world fame.  Sadly, there is no complete recording of her in this role since in the years leading up to and  during the War, European recordings were few.  But the bush telegraph was arguably more effective then, than it is now.  She premiered the opera for the Naples San Carlo in 1927, which was the first time the Alfano ending had been used.

When the British Council opened new premises in Naples, I was asked to bring together distinguished Brits who had made a significant contribution to Naples cultural life.  Dame Eva was one.  She was ninety-five.  She agreed to come providing I would arrange for her to revisit the San Carlo.  She was sure it would stir forgotten memories.  It certainly did.  And it provided an interesting footnote to musicological history.

Francesco Canessa (then the Sovrintendente) showed us into the royal box and seated us there.  She took in the grand theatre in a sweep.  Then she indicated, That is the box where Alfano sat.   But O dear, she added, this brings back a shaming memory.  Alfano had been complimentary of her performance, thanking her profusely, adding, And I shall certainly incorporate that delightful small change you made when we print the score.  Small change!  Here was she, famed for accuracy and precision, who had dared to give the composer something he had not written.  But her instinct had served her better than Alfano’s pen.

There is hardly a post-war Turandot who didn’t visit Eva in London for consultation lessons on this role.  Gwyneth Jones was one.  When Eva died, she bequeathed to Dame Gwyneth the diamond tiara which Patti received from the Emperor of Russia and Eva had  made a successful bid for at the auction of the Patti jewellery.

Birgit Nilsson was another impressive Turandot.  But for me, non was greater than Ghena Dimitrova.  Eva, more or less agreed,  saying something like, First she is blessed with the superb, perfectly-focused voice, but equally important, her instrument is magnificently supported physiologically.  She could sing all night with a steely, focused tone, without any wear or damage to the voice.  When difficult music sounds as easy as that you know at once that you have something special.


Rome Opera decided to abandon both of Franco Alfano’s endings (reworked, orchestrated and added to from sketches left by Puccini as he was dying of cancer.)  It was the second of these endings which Dame Eva had premiered at the San Carlo in 1927, and which remained in repertory until recently. (Luciano Berio made his own ending from the Puccini sketches, which is in use at Covent Garden).  But Rome Opera chose to end the opera where Puccini’s manuscript ends, with the death of Liù, which is where Toscanini ended it at the La Scala premiere in 1926.  This means that Turandot only sings in the Riddle Scene.  She appears in Acts 1 and 3 without singing,  but there is no final Turandot / Calaf love duet.

Given the German soprano, Evelyn Herlitzius’s unsuitability for the role, reducing the part to about half of its normal performance time was an excellent idea.  I will just mention her two main faults. (1) she could be singing in Chinese; even with surtitles in front of our eyes it was impossible to know where she was in the text: she has neither the vowels nor the consonants of the Italian language.  (2) She was grotesquely out of tune.  Had she sung to Dame Eva, she would have been told that until she learned to approach those fearsomely high, loud notes from above, she would always be in intonation trouble.   And boy, was she!  It set your teeth –or should that be ears?- on edge.  Her voice IS indeed steely but it is also woefully unfocused and wilfully wrongheaded.  An unmitigated disaster.

Herlizius has enjoyed great success at Bayreuth as Brünhilde.  I can understand why.  Wagner is on record saying he is not particularly interested in beautiful voices so long as the dramatic thrust is right.  But there is no such concession in Puccini.  And she could no more have sung the final love duet than   the man in the moon.  Nilsson, perhaps the greatest Brünhilde,  could and did.  Nor was Herlitzius’s performance a question of Turner’s embarrassed  small change  of her Alfano encounter: it was a brutal, destructive onslaught on Puccini’s writing. This ice-cold princess could not have melted into love (the entire point of the drama) even if she had been left out in the Mediterranean sun for an entire summer.

I attended the last of eight performances of Turandot  in which the theatre’s excellent Artistic Director, Alessio Vlad, had given the opportunity to a young tenor to make a debut –an entirely applaudable move.  But the young man was inaudible.  I am not going to name him and shame him because I refuse to do this with a young singer.  The mistake lies with the theatre in inviting him.  And Maestro Vlad accepts this.  He tells me the audition had been outstanding. Aha! I later thought, this audition was probably in a big rehearsal room with piano  In that setting it is very difficult to judge the size of a voice or how it will sound in the auditorium with orchestra.  (Richard Bonynge could make this calculation; but he was an exception.)

But just see the professionalism of Alessio Vlad when he heard the mistake.  He was immediately on the phone to the Bulgarian tenor, Kamen Chanev, who had sung three earlier performances, in the hope that he was still in Rome, could drop whatever he was doing and get to the theatre to sing the second and third acts.  We were ten minutes late in starting the second act, time needed for Mr Chanev to get into costume.

But the wait was worth it.  Kamen Chanev’s voice was beautifully ringing and magnificently focused.  Nessun’ Dorma  was memorable.  We haven’t heard such a lush, warm tone since Luciano Pavarotti’s historic performance.

Maija Kovalevska replaced the indisposed Carmela Remigio as Liù.  But she too had sung in three previous performances.  However, she is not the lyric soprano which Puccini calls for in contrast to Turandot’s steeliness.  She squawked through both her arias with a sound resembling a rusty vegetable grater.

The shadowy side of fairytales is very much a Roberto De Simone speciality.  The great Neapolitan man of theatre is now elderly and unwell.  This present staging was rehearsed by Mariano Bauduin and first seen at the  Teatro Petruzzelli in Bari, brought about with De Simone’s usual collaborators.  The idea of using the chorus as a terracotta army (Odette Nicoletti’s convincing costumes) was ingenious, the grey providing a sharp contrast to the fairytale faded blues and greens of the sets (Nicola Rubertelli) .  There was also some effective lighting (Agostino Angelini) of both sunlight and moonlight –both with a charmingly exaggerated fairytale touch.

What does a stage director do with the Ping, Pong, Pang scenes?  Pension them off!   cries a brutal voice.  Their singing is only ever heightened speech  and they can easily come across as somewhat irrelevant last-minute insertions.  De Simone choreographs them, upping their commedia d’arte  role as clowns commenting on (often the absurdity) of the action.  They never really feel as though they belong within the all-over structure of the opera.  My guess would be that they felt this way to Puccini too.

Pinchas Steinberg paced the opera well and generally drew fine playing from the orchestra.  I myself remain unconvinced by Puccini’s attempts to go Chinese –forays into the pentatonic scale which almost work on the tuned percussion, but Puccini’s percussion tinkering is somehow never as masterly as Britten’s.

After the no-go tenor and the shrieky Turandot, at the end of the second act, I dashed over to Gofreddo’s bar, bought a large bag of Cunese Rum chocolates and distributed them to the jaded nerves of the press row.  But much stranger, at the end of the show, on my way home, I found the music of Brünhilde going through my head.  Now how do you suppose that could have happened?

Jack Buckley

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