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Vincenzo BELLINI (1801 – 1835)
I Puritani - Melodramma serio in three parts
Elvira Valton…Stefania Bonfadelli (soprano)
Lord Arturo Talbo…Stefano Secco (tenor)
Sir Riccardo Forth…Vladimir Chernov (baritone)
Sir Giorgio…Michele Pertusi (bass)
Enrichetta di Francia…Annamaria Popescu (mezzo-soprano)
Lord Gualtiero Valton…Angelo Nardinocchi (bass)
Sir Bruno Roberton…Mario Bolognesi (tenor)
Coro del Teatro Massimo Bellini di Catania / Tiziana Carlini
Orchestra del Teatro Massimo Bellini di Catania/Kuhn
Recorded at Catania, 17/22/26/28 April 2001 DDD
ARTE NOVA CLASSICS 74321 87081 2 [3CDs 61.31+66.15+38.23]

Consistency is a little considered concept which, knowingly or unknowingly, we seek throughout our lives; as a child from parents and teachers; as an adult from employers, friends and those who govern us.

Now let me apply that simple philosophy to CDs and in particular to this recording of Bellini’s final opera. Bellini took his time composing; not for him the churned out 2 or 3 compositions each year. It was a year’s work to give the world a superb example of a bel canto opera: dripping with melody, abounding in emotion-twitching modulations and full of passion and exquisite sound. So far, so excellent; but let us remind ourselves that in any recording Arturo comes over as a bit of an excitable twit with a failed villain in Riccardo. Set in the English Civil War, with its terrible family divisions, the opera uses those issues as background only to the real theme: rejected innocence descending into disturbed sanity and back again.

Let me now consider consistency from a reviewer’s point of view. By what standard should this recording be judged? By the standard of recordings of opera at other Italian opera houses; or by the international standards set by the world’s best leading exponents in the premier opera houses or recording studios? For consistency I believe that the benchmark must be international for otherwise any review would have to carry a ‘standards’ labelling. With that background I now turn to the CD itself, whilst noting as a preliminary point that consistency does not apply to this recording: it is a real curate’s egg.

The first serious drawback is extraneous noise. When next recording at the Teatro Massimo Bellini perhaps a free issue of cough sweets would be helpful; and what causes the all too frequent creaking sound? Is it adjustment of music stands or expanding plastic under arc lights? The Sinfonia includes these distractions which sadly appear intermittently, and therefore consistently, throughout the recording.

The opening scene with Mario Bolognesi as Sir Bruno starts badly with an "All’erta" which sounds half-asleep, but improves quickly with Bolognesi’s clear timbre and diction, setting the background with orchestra and chorus. Unfortunately here, and at some later points in the recording, the orchestra, with some variable pacing, is allowed to dominate the proceedings with too much forte. That causes a loss of some of the power of the teasing modulations, and that loss is exacerbated by a lack of dynamics. The really annoying inconsistency is that at other points they provide just the right supportive background: for example for Arturo’s "A te, o cara…" Stefano Secco, as that impetuous Cavalier, middles his notes and rises well to the high vocal points and never loses a syllable. That scene closes with excellent dynamics and vocal balance. Those same observations apply later in the great larghetto ensemble where all the contributions can be distinguished clearly.

We learn from the booklet that Stefania Bonfadelli, who sings Elvira, began her career in 1997, this live recording being made four years later. That we have a young sounding Elvira is authentically excellent. The obverse is the inevitable lack of vocal maturity. Her opening off-stage quartet proves that when singing piano she can produce a seriously sweet sound as she does at several later points – even towards the outer limits of her vocal range. In her difficult "Son vergin…" she middles her notes and enunciates with remarkable clarity: strangely the girlish lighter touch is not evident here, which I would have expected her youth to provide without difficulty. Where her vocal immaturity is evident is the aria "Qui la voce…" Whilst concluding it with a delightful descending run she did not sound comfortable in the earlier sections. Later when Elvira is returning to normality the mental change is not particularly evident vocally.

I always think that the role of Sir Giorgio is difficult: he is more a commentator or scene-setter than character. Michele Pertusi sings the role well enough but tries to overcome the composers limitations upon him by dramatising everything. Then when he has the opportunity to distinguish between recital and plea in "Io cominciai…" there is no real change of intonation available. His delivery of the lilting melody "Piangi, o figlia…" would not send me home whistling the tune.

Vladimir Chernov sings Riccardo, the purported villain, without any great evidence of characterisation. He appears to concentrate on producing the notes and never really relaxes into the role. He does not project the smooth vocal technics which we expect in "Bel sogno beato…"

Angelo Nardinocchi despatches competently the supporting role of Valton. Annamaria Popescu’s rich mezzo, as Enrichetta provides the most vocal colouring. Her interchanges with Nardinocchi being warm whilst with Secco her full sound seems to encourage him towards colouring and characterisation even if his recognition of his Queen is undramatically delivered.

Which leads neatly into the booklet with its Italian libretto, without translation. Curiously the introduction, the synopsis and the biographies are in both German and English but not Italian, which must point the finger at the intended market for the recording. Therefore, first, with no translation, if you wish to follow and understand the libretto word for word, you must be reasonably fluent in Italian. For those who are not, the synopsis is brief but adequate save for describing Enrichetta as the Queen of France. She was never a French Queen: she was the daughter, and later sister, of a French King and the mother of two English Kings. Her only throne was English. Her historical importance for the plot, which explains Arturo’s response, is that she was the widow of Charles I. Incidentally I would have preferred consistency between the booklet and the back of the box: the former describes it, conventionally, as set out in the title to this review whilst the back of the box describes it as an "Opera in three Acts". A small point but a somewhat careless inconsistency.

The length of Part I always creates problems: it has to be ‘broken’ somewhere and the choice here is as good as any. However with a final disc of only 38 minutes it is curious that a chunk of the final Elvira / Arturo duet has been omitted. It is not the most exciting part but it does lead climactically into Arturo’s explanation that the unknown lady was his Queen. Further the libretto does not make the omission clear by square brackets or whatever.

I will conclude with my opening theme: there are too many inconsistencies in this recording. It is not one that I would add to my collection.

Robert McKechnie

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