ALBUM TITLE: Puccini
PERFORMER: Nina Stemme, Maria Agresta, Aleksandrs Antonenko, Alexander Tsymbalyuk, Angelo Veccia, Roberto Covatta, Blagoj Nacoski, Carlo Bosi; Coro di Voci Bianche dell’Accademia Teatro alla Scala; Coro e Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala/Riccardo Chailly; dir. Nikolaus Lehnhoff (Milan, 2015)
CATALOGUE NO: 074 3937
There are many more riddles in Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s production of Puccini’s final opera than are asked of Calaf. But it is a measure of Lehnhoff’s authority that you never question his choices – the blood red geometrical set, studded with coat pegs it seems, the people of Peking in uniform black and wearing half masks and then in brilliant red, and Ping, Pang and Pong refugees from some extravagant commedia dell’arte troupe. We are no doubt that we are watching a fable, but it’s a horror story too with death at every turn. And crucially for Lehnhoff and his designers, Raimund Bauer and Andrea Schmidt-Futterer, it’s also a drama in which Calaf, Liù and Timur, all so different from the inhabitants of Peking, return humanity to this imperial city in the grip of a bloodlust. Love really does triumph at La Scala.
In part it’s because Riccardo Chailly digs deep into Puccini’s score, matching the angled chords and jagged rhythms of the first act with the lyricism that the composer reserves, say, for Liù’s first aria. And the La Scala orchestra plays as if their life depended on it. It helps that Chailly chooses Luciano Berio’s striking end to the opera, which keeps faith with the musical sketches that remained after Puccini’s death while taking this uncompleted last work on into another edgy late-Romantic world, with shifting tonalities that hint at late Strauss.
Nina Stemme is in the great tradition of Birgit Nilsson’s Turandot, though there is a touching uncertainty around her Princess too, a sense that she is as much a victim of the rape of her ancestor as everyone else. Aleksandrs Antonenko is a brawny Calaf who lacks Stemme’s ability to characterise a role. But Maria Agresta’s Liù is one of the most appealing on record. The very stones of Peking would weep to hear her second aria, ‘Tu che di gel sei cinta’.
Listen to an excerpt of this recording here.