The first time that I heard "Turandot" was at a performance in the Arena de Verona some years ago and it was a life-changing event for me: the opera and its performance was simply sublime, indescribable in its intensity to convey a host of emotions. At the end of the first act, less than half an hour's worth, I turned to my wife and said "I'm happy to die now!" or words to that effect: extreme it may sound, but I still hold it true. The beauty of the music and the splendour of the performance in that fantastic arena, in front of nearly 20,000 people that, like me, went wild with excitement at the end of the act, delivered sensations and emotions that can only be expressed as divine.
Since that introduction some seven years ago I have seen live and heard on CD and DVD a large number of different productions of the opera.
On CD, my favourite version is Decca's 1972 recording with a young Luciano Pavarotti as Calaf. This is a studio recording, which I prefer for opera if listening on CD - if you can't have the theatre then you have to make up by having the best sound possible and studio wins over live recordings every time. For instance, I much prefer this recording over the Carreras/Marton/Maazel recording recorded live at the Vienna State Opera that some hold as the finest recording of the opera: Carreras neither has the power nor beauty of the young Pavarotti and Maazel's conducting is ponderous.
Pavarotti's is a brilliant performance - in 1972 he still had the power to go with the gorgeous silky timbre of his voice. Calaf's role needs the power to make the end of Act 1 the thrilling piece of music and theatre that it can be - it works wonderfully well here. The first act of Turandot really is a stunning piece of music: enjoyed best if you have seen at least one production and can replay it in your mind's eye but I suspect that it could nevertheless be very appealing to any listener.
Joan Sutherland does well in the very tricky role of Turandot: this part is pitched so high that the wrong singer can sound too shrill but Sutherland's timbre is easy to listen to even when reaching the highest notes.
The remainder of the cast is also top class. Montserrat Caballe as Liu ekes out all the sympathy the role has to offer and Nicolai Ghiaurov as Timur also delivers a fine performance; the singing at Liu's death in particular is achingly beautiful. The trio of difficult roles, particularly so in the theatre, Tom Krause, Pier Francesco Poli and Piero de Palma as Ping, Pang and Pong deliver a gorgeous rendition of Act 2 Scene 1, so much so that not only can you hear the fabulous musicality of the score, but the comedy in the scene also shines through from their vocal rendition alone - a real plus for this recording.
After all of these superlatives, it should be no surprise for you to learn that I think that Zubin Mehta's conducting of the London Philharmonic orchestra is first class: the tempo is up and he manages to deliver every subtle nuance of colour from the orchestra throughout the recording.
It's a stunning recording of a brilliant opera that I have enjoyed listening to many times over and hope to again and again...if you are going to own only one recording of Turandot then make it this one!