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Vincenzo BELLINI (1801-1835)
I Puritani - opera in three acts (1835)
Elvira - Montserrat Caballé (sop); Arturo - Alfredo Kraus (ten); Riccardo - Matteo Manuguerra (bar); Giorgio - Agostino Ferrin (bass); Bruno - Dennis O’Neill (ten); Gualtiero Valton - Stefan Elenkov (bass); Enrichetta - Julia Hamari (sop)
Ambrosian Opera Chorus
Philharmonia Orchestra/Riccardo Muti
rec. Kingsway Hall, London, June, July 1979
EMI CLASSICS 5091492 [3 CDs: 39.05 + 62.43 + 70.31]
Experience Classicsonline

In the spring of 1833 Bellini’s ninth opera, Beatrice di Tenda was presented at Venice’s La Fenice. It was not a success. During its composition Bellini had quarrelled with Romani, his librettist and long-time friend, even mentor. At about the same time, back in Milan, the husband of Giuditta Cantu, his mistress, discovered some letters that left no doubt about the nature of the relationship of his wife with the handsome composer. A scandal followed and the husband and wife separated. Bellini had earlier accepted an offer from the King’s Theatre in London to present several of his operas. Turning his back on Giuditta Cantu he left for England. His operas were successful in London where he met and was infatuated, or even more, with Maria Malibran.

Despite the success of his operas in London, no new commissions were forthcoming, and Bellini went to Paris, the musical capital of Europe. His earlier operas had preceded him and he was welcome in every salon, and particularly that of Madame Joubert. Bellini hoped for a commission from the Opéra, having made contact with its director, Veron, on his way to London. When no commission arrived, Bellini accepted one from the Théâtre Italien where his Il Pirata and I Capuleti e I Montecchi had been favourably received by audiences if not critics. With no Romani, Bellini looked around for a new collaborator. His choice fell on Count Carlo Pepoli, an Italian political radical in exile in France whom the composer had met at a salon of like-minded fellow Italians.

Following the custom of the time composer and poet decided to adapt a recently successful play as the basis of the new opera. They chose the historical drama by Ancelot and Boniface based on the English Civil War in the period after the execution of Charles I. In this story composer and librettist also sought to exploit the European infatuation with Sir Walter Scott’s works and at one stage titled the opera I puritani di Scozia, the title of an Italian translation of the novelist’s Old Mortality. Count Pepoli was no Romani and he and Bellini had many disagreements in the course of the construction of the libretto. Bellini sought advice from Rossini as well as depending on his own theatrical experience and what he had learned working with Romani.

The action of the story takes place in Plymouth after the massive defeat of Charles I at the hands of the Puritans, his execution, and the defeat of the Cavalier rebellion. The Puritan governor, Lord Valton, has agreed to the marriage of his daughter Elvira to Lord Arturo Talbot, a Cavalier. This was after persuasion by her uncle Giorgio and was despite the fact that he had originally promised her hand to Riccardo Forth, a captain in his army. Valton explains that he cannot attend the ceremony, as he is to take a prisoner to London to stand trial. Arturo recognises the prisoner as Enrichetta, widow of the executed king. To save her from certain death he smuggles her out of the castle in Elvira’s bridal veil, passing her off as his wife. Elvira assumes she has been betrayed and loses her reason. Giorgio implores Riccardo to save Arturo from death otherwise Elvira will die of grief. He reluctantly does so. Arturo returns to the castle and explains his sudden disappearance to Elvira who, after more mental anguish as she worries that Arturo will desert her again or be executed. She is finally convinced and restored to reason after Cromwell, who has defeated all the Royalists, declares an amnesty.

With a dream cast of Giulia Pasta, Rubini in the high lying tenor role of Arturo along with Tamburini and Lablache, Bellini’s long melodic lines and mad scenes made I Puritani an outstanding success from the first night. The opera was performed seventeen further times in the Paris season before travelling first to London and then throughout Europe. Fellow Neapolitan Queen Maria Amelia received Bellini and he was awarded the Légion d’Honneur. Somewhat fragile in health at the best of times, and after the tensions of the production, Bellini returned to stay with his Parisian hosts and planned additions to I Puritani for an Italian production with Malibran. He suffered a recurrence of the gastric problems from which chronic condition he had ailed for some time. Despite the attentions of Princess Belgoioso’s personal physician, Bellini died on 23 September 1835. Unlike his contemporaries Bellini did not compose at speed. In his brief life he had written a mere ten operas finding greatest fame with Norma, at least after its disastrous first night. Like I Puritani it is characterised by long flowing melodic lines with one section blending nearly imperceptibly into another. It was a technique that even Verdi did not either emulate or achieve until late in his compositional career.

This 1979 recording of Bellini’s I Puritani has no singers of the stature of the original quartet – not even Caballé, who in her bel canto pomp of the 1960s might have been ideal for the role of Elvira. However, her performance in this recording shows the vocal consequences of many performances of Norma, recording Aida as well as surmounting the thick orchestral textures of Richard Strauss’s Salome. Being recorded back to back with Cavalleria Rusticana would not have helped her vocal condition either. Given Caballé’s earlier repertoire, and capacity for soft pianissimos, it is surprising that she restricted her singing of Bellini’s melodic music to many performances of Norma and Imogene in Il Pirata whilst never singing Elvira on stage or in concert. At this point in her career she is no longer ideally steady in holding the legato line and the voice spreads when she applies pressure. The good expression as well as the defects can be heard in the mad scene O rendetemi la speme (CD 3 tr.1) when she fails to recognise Giorgio and Riccardo. The Giorgio of Agostino Ferrin is woolly-toned whilst Matteo Manuguerra’s Riccardo has little vocal grace. Their singing of the long duet Il rival salvar tu dei …uoni la tromba (CD 3 trs 4-7), regularly encored in the 1835 Parisian performances, has little distinction. Elsewhere Manuguerra sounds vocally rough in this music, lacking smoothness of line and vocal production. Alfredo Kraus, in the Rubini role of Arturo, had long been an elegant vocal presence in the bel canto repertoire and after this recording he put his score away forever. Regrettably, his performance here does his vocal skills and undeniable vocal taste no favours. There are moments when he caresses a phrase with that distinctive elegance so long his vocal trademark. After rather squeezing his tone for the high D in Arturo’s reprise of his serenade (CD 3 tr.11) he thankfully eschews the high F in Credeasi, misera! (CD 3 tr.17) that Rubini and few others, including Pavarotti on the Decca recording, manage. Muti is variable in his tempi and exhibits little of the natural feel he has for Verdi. The Ambrosian Opera Chorus sings with the kind of distinction that is regrettably lacking elsewhere. The accompanying leaflet has an excellent introductory essay and track-related synopsis in English, German and French whilst the recording is nicely balanced.

Lovers of bel canto seeking a recording of Bellini’s last opera will perhaps need to look elsewhere for satisfaction. Personally I find the 1973 Decca recording under Bonynge with Sutherland as Elvira, Pavarotti as Arturo with Ghiaurov and Cappuccilli making the most of their opportunities, highly satisfactory despite the tenor’s tasteless semi-falsetto effort at the high F referred to. It is often to be purchased at mid price (Decca 417 588-2). The previous EMI recording with Maria Callas is seriously cut. It is available at mid price on EMI (review) and a Naxos remastering (review).

Robert J Farr



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