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Vincenzo BELLINI (1801-1835)
I Puritani - opera in three Acts
Elvira, Maria Callas (sop); Arturo, Giuseppe di Stefano (ten); Riccardo, Rolando Panerai (bar); Giorgio, Nicola Rossi-Lemeni (bass); Bruno, Angelo Mercuriali (ten); Gualtiero Valton, Carlo Forti (bass); Enrichetta, Aurora Cattelani (sop)
Chorus and Orchestra of Teatro alla Scala, Milan/Tullio Serafin
Recorded March and April 1953 in the Basilica di Santa Eufemia, Milan
Bargain Price
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110259-60 [2CDs: 69.09+73.19]

This recording can claim to be seminal in the history of both recorded opera and theatre scheduling over the past fifty years. Maria Callas’s performance as Elvira, and as the eponymous tragic heroine in the contemporaneous recording of Lucia di Lammermoor could justifiably claim to have kick started interest in the bel-canto repertoire. This was greatly aided both by the Callas’s performances in the theatre and the parallel emergence of the LP record.

Callas’s very first recordings, taken from a Turin radio broadcast of 1949, were issued on the Cetra label the same year, on 78rpm discs. These included ‘Qui la voce sua soave’ and ‘Vien diletto’ from this opera (CD 2. Trs. 6 and 7 on this issue). 1949 was the year that the diva broke into widespread recognition in Italy by singing Brünnhilde in ‘Die Walküre’ and when at La Fenice in Venice the contracted singer for the part of Elvira in ‘I Puritani’ withdrew. Serafin, who had been a considerable influence on Callas, persuaded her to take the role. She learnt it in five days during which she also sang three performances of the Wagner opera! It was the key to her La Scala debut as Aida, modestly received, in April 1950. Two years later, Walter Legge, head of A and R at EMI’s Columbia label (Angel in the US), came to Italy to sign her to an exclusive contract. She was by then the star of La Scala, and feted elsewhere as one great first night followed another. However, Callas was already contracted to three opera recordings for Cetra only two of which were made, both in September 1952. These were La Traviata and La Gioconda, the latter also in this Naxos series and to be reviewed by me on this site. First off under the Legge contract was Callas’s first recording of Lucia, made in Florence in February 1953. But a major focus of the contract was the involvement of the chorus and orchestra of La Scala, the pre-eminent Italian opera house. For whatever reason, unlike the later Callas/La Scala recordings, which were made in the theatre itself, this ‘Puritani’ was recorded in the city’s Santa Eufemia Basilica. On the original LPs the excessive reverberation considerably muddied the orchestral detail. This and the variable vocal performances of some of the main protagonists perhaps contributed to its long absence from the catalogue until its re-appearance on CD in 1989, at full price. By this time there was strong competition from Sutherland (under Bonynge on Decca) and Caballé (under Muti on EMI).

Perhaps the most important thing to say about this Naxos issue is that restorer Mark Obert-Thorn’s magic makes the performance eminently more listenable than the original LPs (do I remember correctly that side 6 of the 3LP set was a blank?). He has ‘lifted’ the voices out of the muddy background allowing them to be heard in all their strengths and weaknesses. The orchestra and chorus are generally set well back and it has not been possible to clean up all the textures, there being significant differences between the opening of acts 1 and 2 (CD 1. Tr. 1 and CD 2. Tr. 1) and the much clearer open orchestral sound of act 3 (CD 2. Tr. 3). It was always contended that Legge tried to surround his star diva with voices of stature. Well on the evidence of my ears he was not wholly successful. Then there is the matter of style in respect of the long lovely cantilena of Bellini’s last opera. As the tenor hero, and Elvira’s betrothed, di Stefano sings with light lyric tone and in the original key, but his singing is not in sympathy with Bellinian style. He fails to inflect those long phrases with the elegance that Pavarotti brings to the role (Decca), often labouring the long lovely line (CD 1. Tr. 12). As the spurned suitor, Rolando Panerai (b. 1924), who was to have a long and distinguished career on record and in the theatre, is a severe disappointment. Like di Stefano he is not sympathetic to the style as well as being dry, thin of tone and lacking legato (CD 1. Tr. 6). Perhaps this was nerves in his first recording, but he is no competitor to Cappuccilli whose long-breathed and well-covered tone is a delight on the Decca. However, in the long Act 2 duet with Giorgio (CD 2. Trs. 8-11) he is much better. Of the men Rossi-Lemeni’s Giorgio has most to offer in terms of both style and vocal sonority. Although his intonation has a tendency to sag from time to time, he sings a gracefully phrased ‘Cinta di fiori’ (CD 2. Tr. 3) and is a tower of strength in the duet with the Riccardo of Panerai.

As Elvira, Callas, the raison d’être of the recording, gives one of her best performances on record in terms of both characterization, never a problem with her, but also in terms of vocal quality. Her singing fortunately lacks the curdled middle voice and squally top that were to mar so many of her later recordings. Hearing performances such as this, one can better understand the furore in the theatre, when in addition to her singing, her consummate acting made for wonderful operatic events! Her coloratura is not as secure or as florid as Sutherland’s, but her diction is infinitely superior, as is her characterization. That is not to imply that this Callas portrayal is perfect vocally. There is the odd hardness at the top of the voice and a slight unsteadiness at forte.

Although Serafin opens up cuts traditional in the theatre at the time, this recording is still around 32 minutes less than Bonynge’s complete version on Decca; such was contemporary practice. This Naxos issue is but a quarter of the normal price of the Decca, although in the UK superstores the latter is often available at discount. This is very much an issue for Callas fans and those who wonder what all the fuss was about. As I have already indicated, unlike on some other, later, recordings by the diva, the listener can hear a truly great performance from her. It is in far better sound than we have had hitherto from this 1953 recording.

Robert J Farr


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