- Sondra Radvanovsky, Jonas Kaufmann, Ermonela Jaho, Antonio Pappano, Orchestra e Coro dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia: “Puccini: ‘Turandot’” (Warner Classics)
- Lara Downes: “Love at Last” (Pentatone)
- Olivia Gay: “Whisper Me a Tree” (Fuga Libera)
What’s the carbon footprint for a beheading? And why is this seemingly the one question I am unable to answer via Google?
I mean, yes, I could just review the new studio recording of Puccini’s “Turandot,” including the role debuts of Jonas Kaufmann as the Calaf and Sondra Radvanovsky in the title role, as well as conductor Antonio Pappano’s first run of the opera. But it’s a long opera, one in which the taut, nonstop drama of the first act gradually loosens up, leaving plenty of lulls for the mind to wander by the time the Calaf has sung “Nessun Dorma.” Onstage, this is often compensated with opulent, at times extravagant productions whose own carbon emissions for one evening eclipse those of Suriname for a year. On recording, there are no Zeffirellian orgies of gold leaf to hide behind. As Lou Reed put it, you’re going to reap just what you sow.
The first lull comes in the beginning of Act II, as Ping, Pang, and Pong lament their fates as former ministers of state turned into event organizers for Turandot’s countless executions. In this century, recording an opera in-studio has become the exception to the rule of the more cost-effective live performances that are recorded and mastered for CD and MP3, which means that the question of why—Why now? Why this opera? Why this cast?—becomes even more pointed. To tackle the last question, one of the biggest selling points for this “Turandot” is the potent chemistry between Kaufmann and Radvanovsky, both of whom expertly wield Puccini’s firehoses of emotion. In a somewhat plodding Act I finale, Kaufmann’s burnished tenor builds momentum, surpassing the plodding baseline as the Calaf’s moment of decision comes and he calls for Turandot. Pappano’s slightly slow tempo becomes an asset for Kaufmann’s final cry of the princess’s name, which rings out in a high A for ten resolute, indefatigable seconds. Yes, he also sings “Nessun dorma,” but the headstrong cry of “Turandot” against the counterpoint of the rest of the cast singing “La morte” in Act I has always, for my money, been the more thrilling moment (against the more assured confidence of the Act III aria’s final “vincerò).” Radvanovsky is equally voracious in the finale to “In questa reggia,” despite a similarly languid tempo.
Much like Kaufmann’s 2020 studio recording of Verdi’s “Otello,” there is at least one practical advantage to an audio-only performance: sidestepping the questions of appropriation that come with a traditional staging. This avoids shoehorning a German tenor (Kaufmann), Canadian soprano (Radvanovsky), and Albanian soprano (Ermonela Jaho as Liù) into Asian roles, while allowing these singers to record parts that are a compelling fit for their voices. The recording studio doesn’t demand yellowface—really no medium for classical music does, but try telling that to Anna Netrebko’s Instagram or the comments section of SlippedDisc.
Re-listening to this new “Turandot” on a morning in Berlin where climate activists glued themselves to busy streets, slowing down traffic in protest of too-slow progress towards climate neutrality, I was also struck by the unlikely parallel: that of the ice princess Turandot’s recalcitrant thaw at the hands of the Calaf and the inexorable melting of the polar ice caps. Turandot’s decree isn’t just about her personal life, it’s about the political future of her country: “Uccidi, e estingui, ammazza. Addio, amore! Addio, razza! Addio, stirpe divina! E finisce la Cina!” Ping, Pang, and Pong bemoan in Act II: “Kill, execute, slaughter… Farewell to love, to our race, to our divine lineage. It’s the end of China!” These couplets called to mind a passage from Mark Bould’s The Anthropocene Unconscious: “Imagine a world haunted not just by the dead, but by the specter of death. Drawn ever closer by the already locked-in consequences of our actions and inaction. Its domain extended by endless escalating catastrophe.” If Bould can make the case that both the “Sharknado” and “Fast and the Furious” franchises are subtly-coded parables of the climate crisis and Anthropocene, why not make the same argument for “Turandot,” a work just as “pregnant with catastrophe” and featuring humans “wreaking havoc on the earth”?
Hence my question about the average greenhouse gas emissions for your run-of-the-mill beheading.
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Perhaps that should even be one of the Anthropocene Unconscious-ified Turandot’s questions posed to would-be suitors. “Here; you want me this badly: How much is it going to fuck over the ozone layer if I decapitate you.” The subtext, of course, being: “Are you really worth the trouble?” Because, make no mistake: Turandot is wreaking plenty of havoc, even if her motives seem reasonable. But what does it say about the countless men who travel to Peking and never come home that each one thinks they’re different, that they’re the ones worth the trouble? The Calaf is so self-absorbed that Liù’s suicide, completed out of her own unrequited love for him in the face of Turandot’s fury, upsets him—but it also makes him want Turandot that much more. Turandot’s glacial indifference towards this plot twist leads to the Calaf melting her by force, grabbing her and kissing her, thereby producing an implausibly happy ending. “The opera should have ended with Turandot herself singing Liù’s pathetic ‘Tu che di gel sei cinta,’ which announces her suicide,” Slavoj Žižek writes, “assuming this designation of herself in the first person singular (“I who was made of ice…”).
Looking at it a different way: Nature itself isn’t safe or logical and is just as capable of wreaking havoc without human influence or intervention. If we want to fully break with orientalist staging conventions, that could be a compelling concept for a “Turandot” with this cast, and Žižek’s ending. What happens when man attempts to dominate nature, bend nature to his will? To borrow from a song as catchy as “Nessun dorma”: it’s the same fight.
If all of this seems like too far of a stretch, you aren’t wrong. But I’d also invite you to have a look at the increasing number of press releases I get for concerts and albums haphazardly pegged to climate activism. I’m confused, for instance, as to why the release of “Love at Last”—Lara Downes’s first recording on the Pentatone label—has been pegged to Earth Day. A collection of solo piano works running the gamut from J.S. Bach to Margaret Bonds, Downes’s album is, by her own admission, mission-driven. But the mission isn’t strictly ecological, rooted instead in the “stubborn belief in the possibility of humanity, brotherhood, peace, and compassion, and in the everlasting power of love.”
That disconnect is probably for the best, as Downes’s curatorial vision is stronger, and interwoven with autobiographical notes and connections that serve the intimate style of her playing. Her recollection of performing Jaroslav Ježek’s “Dawn”—a song that played every morning on Radio Prague during the city’s Nazi occupation, “a reminder to the Czech people that light would come again out of the darkness” as Downes describes it—at the Czech Embassy in Washington, DC and looking up from the keyboard to see an “audience dissolved in tears of shared memory” is especially poignant to consider while listening to Ježek’s satiny score. Downes infuses the work with its double meaning, as both a jazz serenade for the violet hour and a political talisman. Its juxtaposition with a velvety rendition of Bach’s “Wachet auf, ruft uns die stimme” is apt, especially as Downes notes that the arrangement is by pianist Ignaz Friedman, a Polish Jew who managed to escape Europe as Hitler rose to power.
“Love at Last” (whose name comes from lines by Odessa-born, Hebrew poet Shaul Tchernichovsky) unfolds at this cadence, conversational in both its programming and Downes’s performance. There’s a stylistic throughline that makes Margaret Bonds’s “Credo,” Gabriel Kahane’s “Little Love,” Schubert’s “Frühlingsglaube,” and Valentin Silvestrov’s “Lullaby” all sound as if they were cut from the same cloth, familial and familiar. The net effect of this is a long, two-sided conversation that begins with Downes over dinner and continues on her sofa through the small hours—one that’s worth the all-nighter.
Released last year, Olivia Gay’s “Whisper Me a Tree” has a similar acuity of artistic vision. And, for an album that begins its special thanks with “Mother Nature,” it comes by its ecological cred honestly. “I was born at the foot of the Vosges mountains in a region of great natural beauty,” the Belfort-native cellist says. “I continually search for that beauty: not only is it a crucial element of my equilibrium it also surrounds me each and every day.” Last year, Gay partnered with France’s Office National des Forêts to hold a series of concerts in the forests and other natural landmarks in the country—recital partner Franck Ciup has a mobile piano for just such an occasion. Moreover, a portion of each sale for “Whisper Me a Tree” is being donated to the endowment fund Agir Pour la Forêt, specifically towards restoring the Écharcon Forest in Essonne (near Versailles).
These are all extensive roots for a program that is smartly designed and well-played. Like Downes, Gay begins with a dawn étude, here “Chanson de matin.” Its arrangement for cello and orchestra (here the Orchestre National de Cannes, conducted by Benjamin Levy) makes this simple Elgar tune lush and verdant, Gay’s cello poised as a woodsy wanderer as the light breaks through the canopy. Elgar’s companion piece, “Chanson de la nuit,” closes out the program just over an hour later.
In between, Gay zigs and zags between eras and works for solo cello, duos with piano and organ, and full orchestra. Her Romantic prowess and the rich, woodsy warmth of her cello are evident in tracks like Offenbach’s swoony “Rêverie au bord de la mer” and an excerpt from Dvořák’s “From the Bohemian Forest.” I’m even more interested, however, in pieces like the John Luther Adams solo “The Wind at Maclaren Summit,” which wisps around the upper register in sparse lines and open strings. It’s the sort of work that bucks Romantic-era showboating, and Gay is more than up to scale the summit. As much as we can—and ought to—fret about the already locked-in consequences of our actions and inaction, it’s also worth enjoying what remains of our somewhat decapitated ecosystem, whose fate is nevertheless not fully sealed. ¶
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