Puccini: Turandot (Sung in German)
Christel Goltz, soprano (Turandot); Hans Hopf, tenor (Calaf); Teresa Stich-Randall, soprano (Li˜); Wilhelm Schirp, bass (Timur); Karl Schiebener, tenor (Altoum); Heiner Horn, baritone (Mandarin); K–lner Rundfunkchor, Knabenchor des Humboldt-Gymnasiums, K–ln, K–lner Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester, Georg Solti, cond. Plus excerpts from La BohËme, Il Tabarro, and Tosca (All sung in German, except for La BohËme).
Gala GL 100.580 (2 CDs) (B) (ADD) TT: 2:30:27

At first glance, this Turandot would seem to be of decidedly limited appeal. After all, what are the advantages of hearing Puccini's final opera performed in a German translation, and by singers not typically associated with Italian repertoire? But as it turns out, this is a fascinating release providing many unusual and valuable insights into an oft-performed and recorded work. The performance was taped in May of 1956 for broadcast by the Cologne Radio. The sound is first-rate, equal to many of the commercial recordings of the period. There is admirable definition and impact, with just a bit of distortion only in the loudest and highest vocal passages.

The conductor is Sir Georg Solti who of course made several commercial opera recordings including La BohËme and Tosca. While Solti never made a commercial recording of Turandot, it is clear from this Cologne broadcast the conductor had a great affinity for the most orchestral of Puccini's operas. Time and again Solti and the Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra provide an impressive amount of instrumental detail, but never at the expense of the work's overall dramatic flow and impact.

One of the most admirable qualities of Solti's performances, both orchestral and operatic, was his ability to maintain a sense of momentum, regardless of the selected tempo. That is certainly the case in this Turandot. Even the Ping-Pang-Pong scene that opens Act II, which can seem interminably long in other performances, does not overstay its welcome. This is certainly one of the best conducted versions of Turandot on disc, my other favorite being the London recording under the direction of Zubin Mehta. And I don't think it's any coincidence that both Solti and Mehta had distinguished careers both in the opera house and concert hall.

The title role is sung by the German soprano Christel Goltz, best known for her performances in such Richard Strauss operas as Salome, Elektra, and Die Frau ohne Schatten. Goltz also sang Italian repertoire, although according to the liner notes, she never performed Turandot on stage. Rather, she learned the role specifically for this Cologne Radio broadcast.  Despite the lack of stage experience, Goltz proves to be a highly effective and interesting Turandot.  She does not have the vocal beauty of such Turandots as CaballÈ, Sutherland, or even Nilsson. But her voice nonetheless has a focused, compelling timbre, and she is able to overcome the technical hurdles of this brief, but fiendishly demanding role  along the way providing some fascinating interpretive touches.

For example, Goltz takes an unusually intimate approach to Turandot's entrance aria, "In questa reggia"  She masterfully conveys the profound sadness Turandot feels over the rape and murder of her ancestress, Princess Lo-u-Ling. As a result, Goltz's Turandot emerges not as an unfeeling "Ice Princess," but rather a passionate human being with a profound sense of duty to avenge a wrong. Indeed Goltz emphasizes the more human qualities of Turandot without, it must be emphasized, stinting the fiery moments. As a result, Turandot's ultimate capitulation to Calaf becomes far more credible than in most performances.

The Calaf is the oft-maligned German tenor, Hans Hopf. As I've mentioned in other reviews, Hopf was most certainly a problematic singer.  He certainly had vocal power, endurance, and temperament in abundance, allowing him to perform many of the most difficult dramatic tenor roles. But quite often these performances are marred by pitch problems and a thick, muscular vocal quality that brings little pleasure.  In this Turandot, however, Hopf is in admirable form. The middle of his voice is far less baritonal than in most performances. Not surprisingly, the vocal production reveals less overall effort than the norm, with the tenor ascending to secure and ringing high "Cs" in the Riddle Scene. He is generally at his best in the more dramatic moments. For example a rather tremulous "Non piangere, Li˜" fares less well than the Act II confrontation with Turandot. On the other hand, an impressive "Nessun dorma" successfully combines the lyrical and dramatic elements. Hopf also conveys real tenderness in the final duet with Turandot.

I certainly wouldn't throw out my recordings featuring Corelli, Bj–rling, Merli, and Pavarotti as the Unknown Prince. But for those who are interested in exploring the work of a singer who, despite much criticism, had a major career, Hopf's Calaf is an excellent place to start.

No reservations need be applied to the Li˜ of American soprano Teresa Stich-Randall. She is in radiant form, singing with gorgeous tone, including several exquisite, floated pianissimo high notes. A lovely performance, marked by a noble restraint that makes her passionate death scene all the more effective.

The remainder of the cast is fine. Bonus tracks include Stich-Randall in a beautiful rendition of Mimi's first-act aria from La BohËme (in Italian) and scenes from Il Tabarro with Goltz and Gunther Treptow. The final track features the conclusion of Tosca, starting at Cavaradossi's "E lucevan le stelle." The Cavaradossi is Hopf, in even finer voice than in Turandot. Tosca is the young and thrilling Leonie Rysanek, with gleaming top notes and temperament to spare.

All in all, this is a captivating set and, at budget price, not to be missed.

K.M. (May 2002)