The author of these words grew up on the old Cetra-Parlophone recording of Turandot, that exotic operatic animal which wasn’t being sung in the U.S. in the Forties because the dramatic sopranos on this continent chose not to choke on its terrifying tessitura. Dating from 1938 in Torino, it introduced us to the enchanting fragility of the young Magda Olivero in the role of Liu – this was before her premature retirement and a subsequent comeback that carried her career, before nothing less than a cult following, well into her senior citizen years – and also to the quintessential robusto of that pulsing Maserati of a tenor Francesco Merli: he took on Calaf with its signature Nessun Dorma. And the conductor of this first-ever recording of Turandot was a fiery Italian named Franco Ghione whose conducting seemed to a teenager just right, and now, for a much older fellow, no less just. Certainly Ghione was instrumental in creating the effect of a “live” recording when it was in fact a studio job.  Stark opening chords give way to a daunting sense of depravity and indolence in the snake-charmer oboe while the Mandarin drones on about the latest execution of one of Princess Turandot’s ill-fated lovers in old Peking. Then all choral and orchestral hell breaks loose.

Ghione himself could be something of a Vesuvius. At the time of this recording he was spending a few months each year with the Detroit Symphony where, according to the faithful Wikipedia, his insufficient English caused him at times to explode in frustration. Explosions seem to have been only artistic in the preparation of the three important recordings he left us, the other two being a 1934 La Scala Pagliacci with Beniamino Gigli and, “live” from Lisbon in 1958, an iconic Traviata featuring that dark Garbo of the opera Maria Callas.

Leoncavallo the composer of I Pagliacci left in his score plenty of indications of tempo and nuance — this of course doesn’t mean he wouldn’t have enjoyed certain small deviations from the instructions he settled on for a printer eager to get to the public a book of black and white notes dangling Jungle Gymishly from their frames along the staff. Exhibit A: Ghione at the very start of the opera creates an instant atmosphere of unforgiving gravity with a tempo a little slower than the 88 dotted quarters of the page, focusing more on the composer’s italicized deciso and vigoroso than the vivace accompanying his metronome marking. And Tonio’s Un nido di memorie (which always opened the second side of “78” Pagliacci recordings) reaches deeper than usual into the soul of the “author’s recollections” thanks to a tempo a little again below the metro mark. No less felicitous is the finesse and fatefulness of the opening chorus; then in her wistful Ballatella Nedda who’s remembering the ever-liberated song birds of her childhood is quickly flying, but, as the composer requests, without rushing. A little later her candy-covered mockery of Tonio is devastating . . . And hanging, it seems, over everything alla Ghione: a gauze of regret!

On to Lisbon. What a marvelous collaborator Callas had in Ghione, a conductor of refinement as well as rich dramatic imagination. The act 1 prelude is profoundly moving, brimming with nuances of tragedy, Verdi’s closing allargando-diminuendo-&-morendo taken very much at their word: the music runs down like a terminally ill patient. The atmosphere in the first party scene is tense, suffocating, for all the surface elegance of its leggiero-savvy guests. When Violetta is introduced to Alfredo the amorous treble of the orchestra seems in its rolling dotted-rhythm legato to be squeezing out of its veins an exquisite note of compassion. The lovers’ duet is permeated with wistfulness, coming to a broad rapturous close, Violetta and Alfredo trying to hold onto each other against the real world an inch or two away. That world Ghione observes accurately in act 2 scene 2 when he injects the matador chorus with a laidback meridional swing.

. . . And if only Ghione had had a few more comfortable syllables of English, or more patience, perhaps we would have seen more of him in the U.S. But than again, perhaps that wouldn’t have been Ghione.