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Vincenzo BELLINI (1801 – 1835)
I Puritani - Opera seria in three parts.
Elvira…Maria Callas (soprano)
Arturo…Giuseppe Di Stefano (tenor)
Riccardo…Rolando Panerai (baritone)
Giorgio…Nicola Rossi-Lemeni (bass)
Bruno…Angelo Mercuriali (tenor)
Gualtiero Valton…Carlo Forti (bass)
Enrichetta…Aurora Cattelani (soprano)
Chorus and Orchestra of Teatro alla Scala, Milan/Tullio Serafin
Recorded in the Basilica di Santa Eufemia, Milan 24/26/27/29/30/31 March and 1/3 April 1953 ADD
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110259-60 [69.09+73.19]

 

How do they do it? £9.99, or your local budget price equivalent, for a double CD. OK, there is no libretto: but there are 41 cue points in total with a synopsis for each track. Additionally there is an interesting and lengthy background article on the opera. More importantly there is a producer’s explanatory note. Finally the new Naxos box (well, new to me) with its centrally hinged disc holding flap is a real improvement on the edge swung predecessor. We really cannot ask for more.

So what is the rationale? Mark Obert-Thorn, our redoubtable producer, comments on three problems: first, detail obscured by the venue of the original recording; second, the extraneous noises on the master tapes and finally, pitch variations to be "found between sections recorded at different times on some previous editions". He continues, "For this restoration I used the best portions drawn from eight LP copies".

Therefore we should be in for a treat and within the limitations of any historical recording that is precisely what this is. This is Callas and Di Stefano performing vocal gymnastics. It was tempting to write ‘performing vocal callisthenics’ and to leave you to draw any pun, but ‘light exercises’ it is not.

It is an almost unbelievable plot with some less than perfect lines. But this powerful cast overcomes any such problems and carries the listener forward on a wave of self-belief. This is not an Elvira descended into madness: this Elvira slips from sanity and back again in a performance more distrait than demented. Arturo is made to appear a patriotic if thoughtless hero rather than an impetuous twit. Giorgio becomes the emotional uncle convincingly in loco parentis. Riccardo would lead even the timid into military action. Stir into that pot the obviously symbiotic relationship between Serafin and Callas, and the interdependence between them and all other performers. Here is the catalyst for a dramatic production of bel canto.

Serafin’s pacing is superb. Whilst the dynamics of the orchestral introductions are idiosyncratic and the storm not particularly convincing, there is a full round sound with the smooth early brass, later becoming stirringly martial in Suoni la tromba. Indeed the inevitable underlying military themes are drilled out to great effect with occasional orchestral over enthusiasm drowning the singers in its wake. Curiously the orchestral depth of sound appears to increase as the opera progresses – perhaps a consequence of a different LP being used.

Strong dynamics, lyricism and a crisp delivery distinguish the chorus. Sadly even this restoration lets them down in that too often the chorus becomes a fuzzy or husky sound with consequent reduction in diction definition. Similar problems occur for the orchestra at forte: there is a blurring or crumbling of sound. Fortunately these disappointments do not beset the soloists.

Others have written of the developing hard edge to the Callas voice. Perhaps. Perhaps not. What is unequivocal is her manifest understanding of the role. The brilliant crystal clarity of her upper notes (with the occasional non-Bellini high), the naturally relaxed runs (with the occasional non-Bellini glissando), and the floated notes all remind us of the remarkable voice the world so enjoyed.

Nothing less can be said of Di Stefano. His is a truly beautiful tone with some remarkable colours: his entrance aria A te, o cara puts this in perspective immediately. The portrayal of the loyal cavalier and the devoted lover is carried off almost effortlessly. His duets with Callas, particularly Finì…me lassa allows each to develop a legato of almost infinite beauty.

If the bass of Rossi-Lemeni has a slight tremolo, it serves to heighten the intensity of his feelings for his niece. Cinta di fiori is an excellent example of heart-tugging emotion. A deep brown warm tone second to none.

Panerai, as Riccardo, suffers from some unfortunate placing of microphones – a problem not capable of total rectification. From time to time he seems lost within strong orchestral moments. That said his lament / cavatina Ah! per sempre io ti perdei has a phrasing and colouring second to none with exemplary clarity of diction.

Equally clear is Mercuriali as Bruno. A small but important role despatched with sharp and clear-timbred accuracy. Carlo Forti as Valton is a firm voiced bass. Angelo Cattelani as the widowed Queen has the occasional wobble with a touch of shrill at forte. Otherwise she portrays well the escaping queen, with some wonderfully coloured lower register notes.

This was a Walter Legge-assembled cast and the one point which that (almost) guarantees is a superb vocal balance between all participating voices. So it is here - even when off-stage. The glorious sound of the first ensemble O di Cromvel guerrieri drifts from the castle.

For plot development much depends on Panerai and Rossi-Lemeni. Despite the cuts in opera length reducing the interchanges between them, a crude arithmetical exercise still puts them on stage/recording for longer than the other characters. They are quite excellently balanced with complementary dark tones.

Callas and Rossi-Lemeni in recitative sound the caring uncle and distraught, becoming delighted, niece. A quel nome (cued at Odi…Qual suon si desta?) has a tonal balance which delights. What of those showpiece ensembles into which Bellini put such effort? The vocal balance is outstanding in dynamics, tone and lyricism.

By any standard this is an excellent CD. I thought I heard just one click but would put no money on it. There is some sound disturbance to which I have referred: there were the occasional extraneous noises (early on which was initially a bit off-putting): but do not worry. This is ‘£10’ worth of marvellous music.

Robert McKechnie

 



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