The first production of I puritani was at the Théâtre-Italien
in Paris on 24 January 1835. It boasted a cast made up of possibly
the four greatest singers of their time: Grisi, Rubini, Tamburini
and Lablache. It would have been fantastic to hear them. No
one knows exactly what they sounded like but there are enough
ear-witnesses who have described their merits. Antonio Tamburini
(1800 – 1876) ‘had a beautiful, smooth and flexible voice’ according
to one source but those words could be applied to many singers
from different periods. Giulia Grisi (1811 – 1869) ‘was a brilliant
dramatic soprano’. Giovanni Battista Rubini (1794 – 1854) was
hailed for ‘his ringing and expressive coloratura dexterity
in the highest register of his voice’ and Luigi Lablache (1794
– 1858) possessed ‘a powerful and agile bass voice, a wide range’
and was most famous for his comic roles. These generalized descriptions
at least give a hint of their voice characters. How do the four
main singers on the present legendary recording correspond to
what I have quoted above?
Well, Maria Callas was certainly a dramatic soprano and she
could produce brilliant top notes but often also rather squally
sounds and her vibrato sometimes widened to a wobble. No one
associates Giuseppe Di Stefano with ringing and expressive coloratura
dexterity. At the top he could sound strained and almost strangulated
but he was able to sing beautiful pianissimos and was always
an ardent and engaged artist. Rolando Panerai, here at the beginning
of his recording career, tends to force unduly at times and
his quick vibrato can’t be described as smooth. Even so, he
was an intelligent singer and his readings here are nuanced.
‘Agile’ is not the first word that comes to mind when thinking
of Nicola Rossi-Lemeni. He makes rather heavy weather of some
of his phrases but it is a big voice and, like Lablache, he
featured in a number of comic roles, including two recordings
of La serva padrona. The greatest difference from the
original cast is the bel canto technique. In the 1830s
smoothness, beauty of tone and dexterity of florid singing was
the norm. The four great singers in the 1950s were all brought
up with heavier fare, where power, and intensity were required
for the music of Verdi and Puccini, not to mention Wagner. I
believe that Riccardo Muti aimed at something closer to the
bel canto style when he recorded this opera some thirty
years ago and chose Montserrat Caballé, Alfredo Kraus, Matteo
Manuguerra and Agostin Ferrin. It isn’t ideal either: Caballé
is a little past her best and is rather strained up high; on
the other hand she has the smooth pianissimos that were always
her hallmark. Kraus had also passed his zenith and is a little
dry-toned; on the other hand he has all the elegance and agility
of Rubini. Manuguerra was for some years one of the best Italian
baritones, not exactly a bel canto voice – Bruson was!
– but still a sensitive one. Ferrin was lighter of tone than
many of his competitors and had a pleasing tone and quite good
technique. I still rank this recording very highly. Today I
could imagine a cast with Anna Netrebko, Juan Diego Florez,
Simon Keenlyside and Erwin Schrott as the answer to one’s dreams.
But over to the set under review.
With La Scala forces on good form under the experienced baton
of Tullio Serafin we can rest assured that there is a reliable
foundation for the singers to lean on. The vintage mono recording
is clear enough for important orchestral details to be heard.
It’s not spectacular in any way but neither is Serafin’s conducting.
He was always of the kind that did everything right without
drawing attention to himself. Regrettably the chorus suffers
a lot in clarity and as a whole the sound lacks atmosphere.
The comprimario singers are well known from numerous recordings
of the early LP era and they do a good job. Rossi-Lemeni is
not always well focused, a little woolly, a little unsteady,
but he sings his aria Cinta di fiori with expression
and sensitivity to for nuance. Both he and Panerai are deeply
involved in the long scene that ends act III with the showstopping
duet Suoni la tromba. Panerai, who was a pillar of strength
in the recording studios for many years, seems a bit uncertain
at times. Maybe he was nervous, being a debutant before the
microphones. Giuseppe Di Stefano may sing Bellini as though
the music was written by Verdi or Puccini, but he is as ardent
as ever and very often on his best lyrical behaviour. A te
o cara is beautifully sung and he hits the top notes accurately,
but with considerable effort. His diminuendos are marvellous
and Son già lontani is gloriously sung.
Callas is stupenduous from beginning to end. Her top notes in
Son vergin vezzosa are crystal clear and Qui la voce
is the definitive highspot – certainly among the very best Callas
ever did. Sutherland on the famous ‘Art of the Prima Donna’
album may be more assured technically but the emotions and the
colouring of the voice in Callas’s reading are unsurpassable.
This scene is something to be savoured over and over again.
And her singing in the last act is fabulous too, though the
climactic final note in the duet Vieni fra queste braccia
produces that unwelcome wobble.
In spite of some reservations this is still a version of I
puritani that should be in every decent collection of bel
canto operas. Since Grisi and Rubini were never recorded
we have to make do with Callas and friends. Alternatives? There
are two Sutherland recordings, of which the second with Pavarotti,
Cappuccilli and Ghiaurov is to be preferred. There is that Caballé
set which I like better than some other critics. Don’t forget
the one with Beverly Sills and Nicolai Gedda, which I haven’t
heard, but which has drawn some very positive reviews. For Callas’s
reading of Elvira’s role the present set is, however, a ‘must