Vincenzo BELLINI (1801 - 1835)
I puritani - Opera seria in three parts(1835) [139:58]
Elvira - Maria Callas (soprano)
Lord Arturo Talbo - Giuseppe Di Stefano (tenor)
Sir Riccardo Forth - Rolando Panerai (baritone)
Sir Giorgio - Nicola Rossi-Lemeni (bass)
Sir Bruno Robertson - Angelo Mercuriali (tenor)
Lord Gualtiero Valton - Carlo Forti (bass)
Enrichetta di Francia - Aurora Cattelani (soprano)
Chorus and Orchestra of Teatro alla Scala, Milan/Tullio Serafin
rec. Basilica di Santa Eufemia, Milan, 24-30 March 1953. Audio XR Ambient Stereo
PRISTINE PACO085 [69.09 + 73.19]
This recording has already been extensively reviewed in various incarnations by my colleagues Roberts Farr and McKechnie. I do not propose to spend too much time revisiting its many merits and a few demerits. These will already be familiar to most readers. They are, in any case, admirably delineated by those gentlemen, my predecessors, to whom I refer you for a more detailed critique of the performance. I demur very little regarding their opinions but have just one or two observations of my own to qualify their views.
By far the most important point of this my review therefore is to emphasise, as I do every time I report back on the latest Pristine re-mastering, just how superior it is to previous issues - even excellent ones by such as Mark Obert-Thorn for Naxos Historical. It is like hearing this recording for the first time, so full and vivid is Andrew Rose’s sound-engineering. Instead of the crashing seaside-brass-band chords with which EMI’s issue commences the “Sinfonietta”, we hear a tutti from what is identifiably the fine orchestra of La Scala, Milan and then, especially, its euphonious horns. There is virtually no hiss, plenty of airy ambience around the voices and instruments and above all, a new depth now that the lower frequencies have been enhanced; the unpleasant metallic quality always previously present is gone. The result is that even the rather gritty, windy and unsteady bass of Rossi-Lemeni - for me always the weakest link in the cast - sounds better than I have ever heard it before. He remains too tremulous in “Cinta di fiori” but this may be construed as being the result of deep emotion. By and large he emerges as the singer who would be the most grateful to Pristine for its re-mastering were he able to hear it.
Panerai, too, divides opinion by virtue of the slight tremolo in his rapid vibrato and some occasional unsteadiness and inaudibility. He was only twenty-eight at the time of recording and some nervousness is understandable. Otherwise, the musicality and intensity of his singing are admirable. Comparison with predecessors and successors such as Cappuccilli and Battistini reveals some deficiencies in his legato but the latter, for all his vocal supremacy, takes unpardonable liberties by modern standards. Cappuccilli, despite his long-breathed eloquence, is coarser of tone. Neither suggests much desperation in “Ah per sempre” but that most grateful of cantilena arias has always presented a conundrum to a baritone of how to sing it with the smooth assurance the melody requires while simultaneously conveying the emotional import of the thwarted lover. Alongside Panerai’s rhythmic delicacy, Battistini’s agogic distortions would sound almost comical were it not for the nobility of his voice. Best of all in that lovely music was Giuseppe de Luca, his baritone perfectly even and effortless; Panerai is meanwhile very acceptable, especially as this opera gives Riccardo so much music.
Callas’s virtues are well known: superb diction, immaculate phrasing, top Ds and E flats in place, magical downward portamenti especially over the interval of a fifth, lapidary coloratura runs through the octave and a pathos and vulnerability of utterance that remain unrivalled. The improved sound simply highlights her vocal prowess.
Di Stefano is nobody’s ideal exponent of bel canto; there are strains and he has none of Pavarotti’s grace, but the D flat is there. He delivers a virile, impassioned Arturo, full of ardour and animation.
Serafin exhibits empathy with both the idiom of the music and the needs of his singers. His rubato is beautifully judged and he is capable of whipping up excitement over a long span of music. In particular, the arresting opening of the opera is revealed in Serafin’s hands to be masterly, the martial expectation segueing elegantly into the offstage hymn of praise. Everything is so elegantly paced.
The traditional cuts - 33 in all amounting to 32 minutes less than Bonynge’s full score recording - are distressing. The truncation of the ending is especially frustrating but there’s nothing we or Pristine can do about that and what remains is stunning.
A recording with many merits and a few demerits.