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Vincenzo BELLINI (1801-1835)
I Puritani - grand opera in three acts (1835)
Edita Gruberova (sop) Elvira; José Bros (ten) Arturo; Simón Orfila (bar) Giorgio; Carlos Alvarez (bar) Riccardo; Raquel Pierotti (mezzo) Enrichetta di Francia; Konstantin Gorny (bass) Lord Walton;
Chorus and Symphonic Orchestra of the Liceu Theatre/Friedrich Haider
Recorded live at the Liceu Theatre, Barcelona, Spain on 8 Feb. 2001
TDK DVD DV-OPIP [2 DVDs: 159:00]

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This recording is of a production that started its life with Welsh National Opera in 1982 and then became a highlight of the 1992 Covent Garden season with a star studded cast which included June Anderson, Robert Lloyd, Giuseppe Sabbatini and Dimitri Hvorostovsky. I remember attending a stunning May 23rd performance when it was relayed by the BBC. Thumbing through that programme again I notice that it was advertised as a ‘new production’ so presumably its producer, Andrei Serban was not associated with the original Cardiff production of 1982.

So nine years later how does this revival production fare? With another distinguished cast taking part, I find the singing and orchestra first class with the production as good as ever. The characterisations, costumes and soloist movements are those set by Andrei Serban in 1992 and they ideally fit the mood of the piece. Groupings give a good picture but chorus choreography is wooden, particularly in the gay Act I women’s chorus number. The static picture and drab lighting do little to complement the brightness of Bellini’s sparkling music at this point. I do not remember in the 1992 production the entrance of Elvira appearing during the opening prologue, where she wanders around as dawn breaks. The custom is normally to keep the audience waiting for a diva’s entrance and in this Bellini is no exception. Edita Gruberova on this occasion is on fine form throughout and delivers Bellini’s powerful cadenzas effortlessly. She is subtle in her portrayal of Elvira’s encroaching madness and her simple white costume allows her to clearly communicate a changing body form. Her "Vien, diletto, è un ciel la luna" is superbly acted and her voice sustained a top note magnificently. This was one of two occasions that stopped the performance and rightly brought the house down. I liked the sprightly and gallant Arturo (José Bros) a clear-toned high tenor with relaxed legato. He acted convincingly, carrying much of Act III, first with his long soliloquy and then in his duet with Elvira. Both were a joy to listen to. The delicate acting of both singers is excellent. Giorgio (Simón Orfila) and Riccardo (Carlos Alvarez), both with rich resonant timbre, hold their authority and dominance with a strong presence. Their magnetism came across well in the ensembles.

Haider keeps a watchful eye on the music: the orchestra is well directed with delicate horns helping feed the emotions. The pace is energetic throughout and good use is made of accelerating chorus passages to heighten dramatic intensity. The recording is warm with a good presence. I noticed that the recording balance of the opening is ‘thin and top heavy’, yet after the first chorus number a change suddenly corrects the matter with improved acoustic. One wonders if two evening performances were rolled into one?

Televising a live performance is fraught with technical difficulty and it is important to get this right if a DVD is to sell over its audio equivalent. In this TDK release we have a production that is very good in every respect. Framing is well composed and camera angles sensitively catch the spirit of the occasion, with images clear and providing accurate continuity. Visually, the only problem lies with the bare staging. Though a predominance of strong top and back lighting gives the illusion of the Dutch school of painting, it prevents much studying of facial detail. This may well suit the drabness associated with puritan England and its Plymouth setting, but it does little to enhance visual appeal. The scenery is bleak and scant, a criticism held in 1992: and in Act I an over-simplistic drawbridge and metal-framed ramparts is very crude. More attention seems to be given to the provision of an authentic textured floor covering of cobbles or snow. A single property coach on a bare snow-swept stage barely suffices for Act III. To me, a generally accepted minimalist approach just won’t do: too often a graphic designer is employed rather than a scenic artist, and they miss the point that romantic music with authentic period costumes needs to be complemented with romantic settings.

Raymond Walker

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