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Vincenzo BELLINI (1801-1835)
I puritani (1835)
Sarah Coburn (soprano) - Elvira
Lawrence Brownlee (tenor) - Arturo
Azamat Zheltyrguzov (baritone) - Riccardo
Jovita Vaškevičūtė (mezzo-soprano) - Enrichetta
Tadas Girininkas (bass) - Giorgio
Liudas Norvaišas (bass) - Gualtiero
Tomas Pavilionis (tenor) - Bruno
Kaunas State Choir & Symphony Orchestra/Constantine Orbelian
rec. 3-14 July 2017, Kaunas Philharmonic, Lithuania
Italian/English libretto
DELOS DE3537 [3 CDs: 162:07]

I puritani is remarkable for its profusion of set-piece numbers designed to display great bel canto voices to advantage, yet the last new studio recording of it was in 1979, and before that there had been only three others, beginning with Callas in 1953, recorded in mono but revitalised by a Pristine remastering into Ambient Stereo. I favourably reviewed it back in 2013 but it is disqualified from being a first choice by being subject to over half an hour of “traditional” cuts, and can thus be recommended only as a supplement. The next two studio recordings both starred Joan Sutherland and were both conducted by her husband: she is in stunning, youthful form in the first in 1963, but Bonynge’s conducting is limp and she is poorly partnered by a tenor whose singing is laboured, gusty and poorly tuned, markedly inferior to his successors in the studio, Pavarotti (in the second Bonynge recording in 1973) and Kraus, for Muti.

My colleague Göran Forsling reviewed Muti’s recording approvingly in the same year that I reviewed the Callas/Serafin one and he favours that release above all but I am more in agreement with another MusicWeb reviewer, Bob Farr, in finding Bonynge’s second recording to be the best and I refer you to his review for the reasons why. Certainly, those two recordings form the main competition against which this new one must be judged, although among other options there are recordings such as the 1952 radio broadcast conducted by Previtali - but that, like the Callas version, is heavily cut and mono – and I also have in my collection a fine bargain Opera d’Oro issue of a 1969 RAI broadcast starring Freni, Pavarotti, Bruscantini and Giaiotti. However, for all that I love Freni, she was not a natural vocal fit for the role of Elvira, Pavarotti falters occasionally and the sound, while perfectly acceptable, is inferior to studio accounts.

A number of things operate in favour of this new recording: it is in impeccable, modern digital sound; the full score is given without cuts; it is directed by the highly experienced conductor-pianist Constantine Orbelian, and it stars two acclaimed singers. The indications for Lawrence Brownlee’s excellence in the complete role were apparent in his 2016 recital album which included two items from this opera and which I reviewed, saying: “A highlight is the famous quartet from I puritani in which Brownlee is accompanied by three fine Lithuanian singers, in particular the big, vibrant soprano of Viktorija Miskunaite. The singing here and throughout is of the highest order.” He did indeed go on to record the whole opera as per here the following year, again in Kaunas with Orbelian, but this time with the American soprano Sarah Coburn. I am unclear why this release has been so long delayed, but here we are.

That excellence of sound is instantly established by the burnished roundness of the horn chorus in the opening Sinfonia, and that quality is sustained throughout. However, I cannot say that the sublime opening quartet, a hymn to the Creator, makes me prick up my ears in the same way they do when I first heard the later Bonynge and Muti recordings; the voices lack individuality and are recorded far too closely instead of “from within the castle”, as directed, so why ignore that crucial instruction? As a result, the required rapt, exalted atmospheric quality is missing and the effect borders on the prosaic. However, the chorus is admirably animated and Italianate and the orchestral playing the best I have heard from the Kaunas Philharmonic.

Turning to the singers, the two principal artists have many virtues but there are caveats. Regarding Brownlee’s contribution, I have to say that my experience of hearing him live in Covent Garden proved slightly disappointing, as his voice came across as small in that big house, and although that is obviously less of a problem in the recording studio, it is noticeable that even here his voice is still sometimes drowned out in ensembles. Otherwise, there is much to enjoy about his singing; the quartet “A te, o cara” is a highlight, beginning auspiciously with Brownlee’s smooth tenor caressing the long, typically Bellinian melodic line and, just as he did in the recital album, extending the top D flat deliciously. It is really a tenor aria with – apart from the soprano’s sustained top As - an accompaniment from the other three singers and chorus, and he rightly takes centre stage in a lovely piece of singing, but in truth, I prefer the account on his recital, as I find the Lithuanian soprano there to be more seductive of timbre and favour Orbelian’s more languid speed, whereby he takes well over a minute longer than in this complete recording. Brownlee again repeats his achievement on that recital album by singing the lilting tune of “Son salvo…A una fonte” very appealingly, with long-breathed phrasing and unfailingly sweet tone. The duet between Arturo and Elvira, “Vieni fra queste braccia” is similarly virtuosic and crowned with two ringing top D sharps, the second of which is sung by both tenor and soprano together.

Tenors have to resolve the vexed question of how or whether to sing the high F in Arturo’s final aria, “Credeasi, misera!”; some singers like Pavarotti resort to a pure falsetto for the note in between the phrases already containing a top D-flat and a C-natural in lower register respectively, whereas Kraus avoids it altogether and “simply” repeats the top D-flat. Brownlee here sings it in a kind of full voice which cannot help but sound screamed – impressive and surprising, perhaps, but not especially pleasant; surely the falsetto option is aesthetically more pleasing.

Regarding Sarah Coburn’s Elvira, there is again much to admire about her singing, but I wish I found her voice more interesting. She has a sweet, trilling, if slightly shallow sound with an attractive fast vibrato – so no pulse or wobble – and manages some impressively stratospheric top notes but she too frequently lacks engagement and personality in her characterisation. She concludes her opening scene with an impressive top D and her coloratura showpiece “Son vergin vezzosa” goes well enough, especially as she has a serviceable trill, but it is rhythmically lacklustre and her top notes are rather thin compared with Callas, Sutherland and Caballé. She is, however, much more affecting in her limpid account of “O! vieni al tempio” in Scene 10 of Act 1, and caps the conclusion to the Act with a striking high F. That passage constitutes the best of her contribution to this set and it is greatly enhanced by the role of the highly committed chorus. Finally, “O rendetemi la speme” – yet another justly celebrated number – is also neatly sung and she sounds young and vulnerable there, if without generating Callas’ emotional tug or displaying the vocal opulence of Sutherland.

The supporting singers are no great shakes. Riccardo’s “Ah! Per sempre io te perdei” is one of my favourite arias in all opera and a number of baritones have sung it to perfection; sadly, Azamat Zheltyrguzov is not one of them. His light, monochromatic baritone sounds immature and lacking in low notes; he simply sings straight through the music blandly as if he is sight-reading and has no idea what it is about. To hear how this most elegant of bel canto arias should be sung, turn to Yuriy Yurchuk, Giorgio Zancanaro or Renato Capecchi in the earlier Sutherland recording, all on YouTube and all of whom find so much more expressive and tonal variety in the music. I listened again to them to refresh my memory of how it should go and had to drag myself away from them back to this recording under review.

Tadas Girininkas has a strong, rather clumsy bass of no special tonal distinction, especially compared with predecessors like Ghiaurov and the bass-baritone concert duet “Suoni la tromba” with him and Zheltyrguzov is under-whelming. The bass singing Walton is frankly poor: gritty and unsteady and the Enrichetta is no match for singers such as Julia Hamari for Muti.

The opera is neatly packaged in a slim, clear plastic, 3 CD case and the complete Italian libretto with an English translation in a cardboard sleeve.

While I acknowledge its many virtues, especially on the part of the two lead singers, this new release does not displace in my affections Muti’s or Bonynge’s second recording.

Ralph Moore

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