Guleghina, Iveri; Licitra, Faria; Chorus and Orchestra of Arena di Verona, Carella. Production: Zeffirelli. Bel Air Classiques BAC466 (Blu-ray) or BAC066 (DVD), 128 mins., subtitled
Franco Zeffirelli's ultra-lavish production of Puccini's Turandot at the Arena di Verona is a majestic sight to behold. The mammoth set features a gold-gilt palace that towers over the stage, as well as gorgeous Asian-themed folding screens that block the palace from view when the opera's setting is other than the throne room. Naturally, one might assume that these fantastic sights, captured in high-definition, would create a visually stunning experience for home viewing; however, the performance's translation from epic stage event to television production has not been particularly successful.
The primary issue is the video direction, which favors extreme close-ups of both leads and chorus (fortunately, the chorus members are fully involved in the opera's action) at the expense of medium and long shots that would have showed off the staging to better advantage. Furthermore, the close-ups only serve to make painfully clear some of the sloppier aspects of the various makeup jobs: obvious nude-colored skull caps abound, and the Emperor's fake beard is held in place by white elastic straps. The disc's sound is also cause for concern. While the orchestral contribution, led by Italian conductor Giuliano Carella, is suitably rich and present on the track, the voices are somewhat muted and can vary wildly from full and vibrant (Maria Guleghina's Turandot) to barely audible (Pang and Pong in particular). As a result, it is impossible to find one volume level that is acceptable for the entire opera. In my viewing, the PCM Stereo track proved more consistently lush than the 7.1 DTS HD Master Audio version, but both suffered from this balance issue.
The performances themselves are a mixed bag. Maria Guleghina makes an impressive Turandot, her large, steely voice having no trouble cutting through Puccini's dense orchestration. Though she does not possess an innately beautiful timbre, the soprano manages to find several moments to incorporate softer vocal shadings and suggest a hint of warmth and frailty beneath the princess's icy exterior. Unfortunately, Guleghina is dramatically limited by her Calàf, the late Salvatore Licitra, whose performance here is characterized by a chronic lack of physical energy. Instead of bringing intensity to the role — Calàf is, after all, impulsive and passionate enough to risk his life on a lethal bid to marry a woman he has never met — Licitra spends much of the evening sluggishly lumbering around the stage, only showing a hint of personality when he breaks character to bow to the audience and launch into an encore of "Nessun dorma." His singing also varies wildly in quality, occasionally sounding heroic but more often sounding as if he were seeking a vocal resonance he could not find.
Luiz-Ottavio Faria is splendid as Timur, his richly sonorous bass and humble dignity doing full justice to the role of the exiled king. Soprano Tamar Iveri sings Liù's music with dramatic conviction and finesse, particularly in her death scene. Leonardo Lòpez Linares is in complete vocal command as Ping, though the same cannot be said of his two colleagues, Saverio Fiore (Pang) and Gianluca Bocchino (Pong). All in all, this disc is a limited representation of an adequate performance of an impressive production.