When this revival of Turandot was announced, there was considerable buzz generated by the debuts of two extremely popular (at least in Italy) sopranos, Daniela Dessì in the title role and Mariella Devia as Liù. The excitement was even greater considering that both are “local” glories, hailing from Liguria, the region of Genoa. While Mariella Devia dutifully reported and sang the part of the slave girl, Daniela Dessì communicated to the management of the Teatro Carlo Felice that she was not going to show up only days before the beginning of rehearsals. This time no indisposition was claimed. Simply, the soprano – as she herself said in an interview with the local paper – wished to follow her husband, tenor Fabio Armiliato, on a tour for the presentation of Woody Allen’s latest film, where Armiliato plays a starring role. “Woody Allen personally invited me. Do you think I could have declined the invitation?”, added Ms. Dessì. Perhaps not, but for an artist who mentions “her audience” in every other phrase in each single interview she gives (“I owe it to my public”, she resolutely stated, when – chased away by Zeffirelli from a production of La traviata in Rome a couple of years ago, she decided in less than no time to record the whole opera), this time around her public must not have been her top priority. What about the bus loads of fans from all overItaly andEurope who had booked months in advance to witness the primadonna’s first assumption of such a pivotal role?

In her place, they found Giovanna Casolla. The Neapolitan soprano was the last Turandot I reviewed just last summer, and not much has changed since then. I cannot but repeat what I wrote in that occasion. Honestly, I am hard pressed to think of another soprano of her age with the vocal means to sing Turandot without resorting to compromises. Now sixty-seven years old, Ms. Casolla tackles Turandot, one of the most murderous and feared roles in the Italian repertoire displaying fearless high Bs and Cs, long breaths (“Figlio del cielo” was sung all in mezzavoce and with stunning legato), and plenty of volume, a quality that has always characterized her, or on which she has excessively banked, as her detractors might say.

But it was her interpretation that I ultimately found captivating. Differently from most Turandots, who just stand and snarl, impenetrable like fortresses, Ms. Casolla appeared to have a precise idea of her character, that of a spoiled girl used to have her way and who enjoys humiliating and ridiculing others. Thus, the soprano mercilessly teased her suitor during the riddle scene, making abundant use of her eyes, hands and body. The fear of losing became visible as Calaf solved the second riddle, and exploded in a crushing panic after the third one. This time, although the truncated Alfano finale was used, she  sang “Delprimo pianto” (which was cut in Torre del Lago) and we were allowed to witness her transformation into a real adult woman.

Antonello Palombi, better known as the tenor who was thrown on stage of La Scala to sing Radames in shirt and jeans after Roberto Alagna walked out irritated by the audience’s booing of his Celeste Aida, has long made Calaf one of his war horses. Although his voice is not conventionally “beautiful”, it is quite powerful, able to dominate Puccini’s heavy orchestra, and secure throughout all its range. As he resolves the passaggio with adroitness, his top is secure, and often thrilling, allowing him to nail the optional high C in “ti voglio tutta ardente d’amor!”  What’s more, Palombi does his best to respect Puccini’s dynamics. Calaf has long become one of those roles where tenors think that the only approach is to sing loud and louder. While I would not call Palombi a supreme chiseller in the mould of a Bergonzi, he nevertheless tried hard to sing piano when needed. It is not common to hear such an ecstatic reverie in “O divina bellezza, o meraviglia”, sung without breaths, or the sorrowfulness expressed in the ritardandos that Puccini requires for the phrase “dolce mia fanciulla” in Calaf’s aria “Non piangere Liù”. As chance would have it, the least felicitous moment was the high B at the end of Nessun dorma, perhaps the most famous high note in the entire tenor repertoire.  Nothing horrible happened: only it came out a little pinched.

Alessandro Guerzoni was a woolly-voiced Timur, while Fabrizio Beggi’s stentorian Mandarin made me curious to hear him in a much more demanding role.

The voices of Giovanni Guagliardo (Ping), Federico Lepre (Pang) and Leonardo Alaimo (Pong) did not blend too well, and were somewhat weak, particularly the two tenors.

And now to Mariella Devia, another soprano unscathed by the passing of time. After four decades spent almost exclusively in the most pyrotechnical bel canto repertoire  (just last month in Anna Bolena in Florence she proved that she can run rings around heavily marketed sopranos half her age currently receiving accolades in that role), she has now decided to perform a role with no trills, no runs, no coloratura. Liù was not completely foreign to her, as she had frequently sung the arias in concert. From her first important phrase, “Perché un dì, nella reggia, m’hai sorriso”, with a paradisiacally floated B flat, to her final aria, Ms. Devia’s Liù was no less than a master-class on how to sing legato. One polished, effortless phrase succeeded the next; everything above the stave was produced without the least perceptible effort. It is difficult to recollect a difficult phrase such as “Ah! Come offerta supremadel mio amore!” sung with the same anguished gentleness. But her performance did not limit itself to a superb proof of superior vocal technique: Ms. Devia succeeded in portraying the two sides, heroine and victim, of this most “Puccinian” woman.

Conductor Marco Zambelli hardly found such poetry in the score, but at least his direction had plenty of energy and theatrical muscle. Excellent was the chorus (so important in this opera) led by Marco Balderi: even the high C sharp of the sopranos at the end of “Ungi, arrota” was uncommonly full and round.

The production by famed movie director Giuliano Montaldo (who directed the TV series Marco Polo in the 1980s) does not show its twenty years of age.  Traditional and respectful of the libretto, it presents a cruel, almost barbarianChina, completely exempt from any type of Zeffirellesque excesses. The audience filled to capacity seemed to appreciate the whole performance, justly reserving the most intense ovation for Mariella Devia.

4 stars

Nicola Lischi

Photographs © Marcello Orselli