PUCCINI: Turandot / Georg Hann, bass (Timur); Trude Eipperle, soprano (Liù); Carl Hauβ, tenor (Calaf); Maria Cebotari, soprano (Turandot); Fritz Harlan, baritone (Ping); Werner Schupp, tenor (Pang); Robert Kiefer, tenor (Pong); Hubert Buchta, tenor (Emperor Altoum); Heinrich Hölzlin, baritone (Mandarin); Heinz Schlehbusch, tenor (Prince of Persia); Stuttgart Radio Chorus, Children’s Chorus; Stuttgart Radio Orchestra, “Reichssender”; Joseph Keilberth, conductor / PUCCINI: La Bohème (excerpts) / Cebotari, soprano (Mimi); Peter Anders, tenor (Rodolfo); Groβes Berliner Rundfunkorchester; Artur Rother, cond / Koch/Schwann 3-1645-2 (Turandot live, December 10, 1938) also available for free streaming on YouTube
Although I can’t claim to have heard every single recording or live performance of Turandot out there—I like it, but I don’t love it—I’ve certainly heard enough of them to know a good one when I hear one, and I’m here to tell you that this 1938 performance, recorded live in the Stuttgart radio studio in December 1938, may be the best version you’ll ever hear…despite the fact that it’s sung in German.
There are several factors that make it so great, but one that may prove a detriment to some: you only get about 6 ½ minutes of the final duet because a couple of acetates are missing. After the music that follows Liù’s death, which of course is all that Puccini actually wrote, there is a jump to the section of the duet that exists. Then, after a fade-out, you suddenly get the final minute of the performance with the chorus and orchestra.
Yet for those of you who, like me, really can’t stand Franco Alfano’s very weak final scene, this won’t be much of a detriment. You do get everything that Puccini wrote, and within those parameters, this may be the greatest performance of this opera ever recorded.
I’m sure that some readers are scratching their heads by now, trying to figure out how Maria Cebotari could possibly compete with the likes of Gina Cigna (who made the first studio recording of the opera in 1937), Lucille Udovich, Inge Borkh, Birgit Nilsson (who I actually saw and heard in person in this role), Eva Marton, Jane Eaglen, etc. etc. (and please, let us mercifully forget Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland, OK?), particularly since she was noted as a Mimi in La Bohème (a role also represented on the CDs, but not on the YouTube video). The answer is that Cebotari had the unique ability to “open up” her voice when need be and sing such stentorian roles as this one as well as Salome on the stage. No, it wasn’t anywhere near Nilsson’s capabilities—no one ever was—but it’s at least as good as Marton and Eaglen, if not better. She had a large, bright voice with a real “cut” up top; she was often described as “sounding like a gypsy singer, but neatened up”; and even Beniamino Gigli, who begged her to sing in his film Solo Per Te because he wanted to do the Andrea Chenier duet with her, considered her the finest spinto soprano of her time—even better than Maria Caniglia, with whom he made several recordings. Cebotari could inhabit a role with the intensity and dramatic sensibilities of a Callas, and she does so here.
Moreover, because her voice sounds so bright and not really gigantic, she sounds more human and less like an air-raid siren, and as you listen to “In questa reggia” and the Riddle Scene, you will come to appreciate this quality more and more. It even shows in the six minutes or so of the final duet that survives. Cebotari inhabited the character of Turandot. Cigna, Udovich, Borkh and Nilsson merely gave you an overwhelming vocal experience, pulling out all the stops to stomp all over those exposed high notes. And yes, there is a difference.
On top of this, every single singer in the supporting cast has a fine voice, and the other top three characters—Timur, Liù and Calaf—all sing well, musically and with excellent interpretation. Lyric soprano Trude Eipperle, who I’ve always rather liked, may in fact be the most touching Liù on records. I certainly found her to be deeply involved in the character, something you can’t say about most Liùs.
The biggest surprise to me was tenor Carl Hauss (Hauβ in German), who I had never run across before. Born in Strasbourg, the most German city in the most German region of France (Alsace-Lorraine), he was a soldier during World War I (the online bio doesn’t say for which side although he did make his stage debut in Trier, France in 1919), moved to
Karlsruhe, Germany where he sang from 1919 to 1921, followed by stints at Duisburg (1921-25), Nuremburg (1925-26) and finally Hannover, which he called home sweet home from 1926 until 1953. And yes, he made studio recordings (not many, but some), though for some reason he was left out of the Kutsch-Riemens Concise Biographical Dictionary of Singers (1969, though he may be in the later, expanded, two-volume version of the Dictionary). So he certainly had a long career, but in sticking almost entirely to German theaters and not one of the major ones like Berlin or Dresden, he became completely forgotten until this Turandot surfaced on CD in 1998. Hauss had a fairly large, bright and well-focused voice, sounding a bit like Helge Rosvaenge but without the Dane’s near-Heldentenor power or his range in singing both big and small tenor parts. But he is really a fine Calaf, more sympathetic than del Monack (with Borkh), Björling or Corelli (with Nilsson), Pavarotti (with Sutherland) or Domingo. It’s a likeable voice and he projects a likeable personality.
Keilberth in 1932
But when you really come down to it, what makes this performance so special is Keilberth’s conducting. Not a particularly interesting or sympathetic conductor of orchestral music, Keilberth really seemed to come to life when directing an opera, and although Turandot was clearly an outlier for him he took it under his wing and created magic with the score. It is paced slower than most, even a shade slower than Franco Ghione in the first studio recording, yet he achieves something with the music that no other conductor in my experience does. He makes it sound warm and rich, giving the music more gravitas and making the opera sound much less shallow than it normally does. Yes, it’s almost paced like a Wagner opera, but somehow it works. As you listen to the whole thing and move from scene to scene, you’ll find yourself much more engrossed in the music per se than you’ve ever been before. Instead of whizzing by at a brisk Italianate pace, it lingers just enough to make you listen to what the orchestra is saying before going on to the next scene, and this is something that no other conductor I’ve heard (at least not one with a cast this good) has ever accomplished.
In addition to all this, the sound quality is extraordinary; it sounds like a high fidelity recording from the early 1950s. One online reviewer complained that Hauss is over-miked in “Nessun dorma,” and this is true, but even the close miking can’t disguise the fact that he opens the aria softly and sings it with great tenderness and feeling. Thanks to both Eipperle’s interpretive skills and Keilberth’s pacing, Liù’s death scene is immensely touching.
I highly recommend this recording as an alternate to whatever Italian-language recording you have; and if you don’t own a recording of Turandot because you’ve never really liked the opera much before, I suggest that you listen to it at least once all the way through. You may become a convert, at least via this performance.
—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley
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