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Vincenzo BELLINI (1801-1835)
The Complete Operas of Bellini Ten operas, each on two CDs, with an additional recording of La Sonnambula and Norma, and a CD-ROM of the librettos, in Italian.
rec. 1955-2007, various locations; all but two from live performances. ADD/DDD
DYNAMIC CDS552/1-25 [25 CDs: details included in section headings]
Experience Classicsonline


In his adult compositional life Vincenzo Bellini concentrated on the composition of opera. This collection is the first time that a complete edition of Bellini's operas has been released. It provides the composer’s complete artistic and creative path from his debut operatic work and including his rarely heard and infrequently performed works. In addition to the complete sequential set of Bellini's ten operatic works, the collection includes two bonus historical recordings of La Sonnambula, featuring Maria Callas (CDs 21-22), and Norma with Montserrat Caballé (CDs 23-24). These singers are among the greatest interpreters of the respective title roles in the second half of the twentieth century. Each opera is contained on two CDs with the twenty-fifth being a CD ROM with complete librettos in Italian only.

The 25 CDs are contained in slipcases within a cerise-coloured, hinged cardboard presentation box. The accompanying booklet includes an essay by Friedrich Lippmann - an eminent scholar of the Sicilian composer - titled Vincenzo Bellini yesterday and today. This is given in Italian, English, German, French and Spanish. There are cast and track-listings as well as recording details for each performance. Reviewer’s notes

This collection of Bellini’s ten operas is reviewed below in sequence of composition, which with the exception of the extra performances of La Sonnambula and Norma is how they are included and numbered in Dynamic’s presentation box. Rather than merely reviewing each of Bellini’s operas in order of composition I have included details of his life and also of singers for whom he wrote. This also serves to give a fuller picture. For ease of reading I have split the review into two parts:

Part 1. This covers the first five operas: Adelson e Salvini, Bianca E Fernando, Il Pirata, La straniera and Zaira.

Part 2. This covers the last five, and best known, operas: I Capuleti e I Montecchi, La Sonnambula, Norma, Beatrice di Tenda and I Puritani. In the introductory header for each opera, I have included brief details of each role as well as the recording and singer details. I hope this will help facilitate understanding of the plot, particularly of the lesser-known works as there are no such summaries or libretto translations included in the accompanying booklet.

 ……………………………

PART 1 - from CD 1 to CD 10

Vincenzo Bellini was born in Catania, Sicily, during the night of 2 November 1801. Both his father and grandfather were musicians, the latter having settled in Catania from central Italy. Despite Vincenzo’s early signs of musical precocity, and the family’s musical lineage, his father was severely opposed to his son pursuing a musical career. A number of friends, as well as family, exerted pressure. Eventually Bellini’s father relented and Vincenzo was sent to study at the Real Collegio in Naples in 1819. This was the establishment where Donizetti, supported by Mayr, had studied a few years earlier. A wealthy nobleman and the local municipality of Catania supported Bellini’s studies.

Bellini was a diligent student. He also made a lifelong friend of a fellow student named Florimo with whom he corresponded assiduously on all matters including his music and love affairs. Much of that correspondence is extant and gives many insights into Bellini’s mental and financial state throughout his life. Going to Naples, with a population of five hundred thousand from Catania, with only thirty six thousand, must have been a cultural shock for Bellini. So too must have been the 1820 revolution in Naples which saw the temporary removal of the King and his reinstatement two months later. Both Bellini and Florimo were implicated. They were not prosecuted after a confession. This was on condition of a very public proclamation of loyalty to King Ferdinand.

As the prize student at the College Bellini was made a primo maestrino, a position that also meant that could visit the theatre twice a week. He saw Rossini’s Semiramide having its first performances at the San Carlo theatre in Naples after its triumphant premiere in Venice. On graduation in 1824 he was given the opportunity of writing an opera to be presented to the public by an all-male student cast in the College. The premiere was in February 1825. This three-act work, Adelson e Salvini, was a great success and several further performances were given. In its original form Adelson e Salvini was never performed outside the College until given in Catania in 1985 - of which no recording seems to exist. However, Bellini revised it two years after its College premiere hoping for a professional production at the Teatro del Fondo in Naples; he also introduced female characters. Set in two acts the new version substitutes secco recitative for spoken dialogue. This revised two-act version was never performed in Bellini’s lifetime. It only received its premiere in performances in Catania in 1992, which provide the recording featured here.

Adelson e Salvini - Dramma semiserio in two acts, second version (1825)
Salvini, an Italian painter, Adelson’s protégé and friend - Bradley Williams (tenor); Nelly, an orphan and Struley’s niece - Alicia Nafé (soprano); Lord Adelson, Fabio Previati (baritone); Bonifacio, Salvini’s Neapolitan servant, Aurio Tomicich – (buffa bass); Fanny, Adelson’s ward - Lucia Rizzi (contralto)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro Massimo Bellini of Catania/Andrea Licata
rec. live, first performance of De Meo’s realisation, Teatro Massimo Bellini, Catania, Sicily, 21-27 September 1992
CDs 1-2 [79.13 + 63.24]

The original libretto of Adelson e Salvini was set by Tottola, who also wrote for Rossini and Donizetti. It is a story of friendship, love and jealousy. Set in Ireland it concerns the painter Salvini, a house-guest of Adelson, who falls in love with his host’s fiancée, Nelly. In the melodramatic plot her villainous uncle, Struley, attempts to abduct her as an act of revenge against Adelson. It ends with Salvini transferring his affections to Fanny and the marriage of Adelson and Fanny. The part of Bonifacio in the opera is the only time Bellini set a buffa role. Typical of the librettist and the period, the original would have been in Neapolitan dialect.

This recording of Adelson e Salvini, like that of Bianca e Fernando below, derives from live performances at the Teatro Massimo Bellini, Catania, Sicily during a celebratory festival in 1992. It is worth pointing out that there are significant acoustic differences between the two, with Adelson e Salvini having the voices significantly more recessed. There is also more stage noise. The conductor Andrea Licata is the same for both operas. Whilst I found his tempi for Bianca e Fernando variable at times, that in Adelson e Salvini is more consistent and brings out the drama of the various situations without detracting from the buffa elements sung by the excellent Aurio Tomicich (CD 1 trs 8-9 and CD 2 tr 8) who also appears in the performance of Bianca e Fernando.

Although by this early stage in his career Bellini had not expected to have either Rubini or Giovanni David in his cast at the Fondo, he certainly sets the music of the tenor role of Salvini with demanding tessitura. Bradley Williams is a bright-sounding light lyric tenor with flexibility and good extension. When trying to ride the orchestra at dramatic climaxes he is stretched (CD 1 tr.14-16 and CD 2 trs.5-6). Alicia Nafé is a great strength in the cast and sings a characterful and full-toned Nelly (CD 1 trs.2 and 13-14) whilst Fabio Previati sings strongly as Adelson (CD 2 trs.9-10).

Whilst we may now look at Bellini’s first operatic effort as somewhat immature, I suggest that the composer was unlucky not to get this revision staged in his lifetime. It is at least the equal of several of Donizetti’s early staged works and contains music that is very welcome when recycled in the composer’s later operas including his masterpiece, Norma.

Bianca E Fernando - Melodramma in two acts (1826)
Bianca, Carlo’s daughter - Young Ok Shin (soprano); Carlo, Duke of Agrigento - Aurio Tomicich (bass); Fernando, Carlo’s son - Gregory Kunde (tenor); Filippo, an adventurer - Haijing Fu (bass); Viscardo, Philippo’s aide - Sonia Nigoghossian (mezzo)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro Massimo Bellini of Catania/Andrea Licata
rec. live, Catania, Teatro Massimo Bellini, 26 September- 6 October 1992
CDs 3-4 [58.31 + 76.27]

Given the success and reception of the original college version of Adelson e Salvini, Bellini’s teacher, supported by a nobleman governor of the College, arranged for the young man to be commissioned to write an opera for the following season at the San Carlo, the premier theatre in Naples. For the new work Bellini chose as the subject Bianca e Fernando, based on a contemporary play, and a young librettist Domenico Gilardoni to versify it.

The cast at the premiere included the famous tenor Giovanni Rubini, the bass Luigi Lablache and the soprano Méric-Lalande, three of the finest singers available. Due to deaths in the extended Naples Royal Family it was not staged until May 1826 when it was a great success at its premiere. Because the name Fernando was that of the heir to the throne the opera’s name was changed to Bianca e Gernando. The Naples performances also brought Bellini into contact with the tenor Rubini whose vocal skills and extended range were to play an important role in his writing in several of the operas.

The plot is set in Sicily in the thirteenth century. Carlo, Duke of Agrigento, has been usurped and imprisoned by Filippo an adventurer who has spread the rumour that he has died. Fernando, Carlo’s son, returns from exile to avenge his father’s death. Fernando’s sister, a widow with a small son, intends to marry Filippo but is persuaded by Fernando that Filippo was responsible for Carlo’s disappearance. Good prevails, Carlo is rescued and Filippo overthrown.

This recording of Bianca e Fernando derives from the same Festival in Catania in 1992 as that of Adelson e Salvini above. As with that performance the intrusions of applause are not excessive or raucous in any way as to spoil the enjoyment of the music. However, as I have indicated it does not share the same acoustic properties, the voices are much more forward and clearer and there are fewer stage noises. The conductor is rather variable in his tempi. He certainly stretches Gregory Kunde at the start of his Act 1 cavatina (CD 3 tr.3) after which he takes the optional high F in the cabaletta. Generally, Kunde is more comfortable at full throttle, although he can and does sing softly and phrases well when required. Although by the time of the Opera Rara recording of Rossini’s La donna del lago in 2006 (see review) he had more vocal colour his virile singing in this performance is commendable. Young Ok Shin as Bianca has a light flexible soprano voice but lacks the ideal weight and colour to give a fully rounded and dramatic portrayal. As the evil Filippo, Haijing Fu sings strongly with good diction but a little throatily (CD1 trs6-8). Aurio Tomicich, the buffo in Adelson e Salvini sings a sonorous and straight Carlo (CD 2 trs.14-15).

For performances in Genoa in 1828, away from the restrictions of the Kingdom of Naples, and with revisions to the libretto by Romani, the title reverted to Bianca e Fernando. This is the title given here. Giovanni David, the coloratura tenor who had created several roles in Rossini’s Naples Opera Seria sang Fernando in Genoa. Like Rubini he had secure high Cs and Ds and these abound from the start. They appear early in the first scene (CD 3 trs.2-4) of act 1 in the cavatina A tanto duol. In the following cabaletta Gregory Kunde goes smoothly through the passaggio to sing a high F at the conclusion (Tr.4). There is further vocal display for the tenor role in act 2 (CD 4 trs.10-11). The music of act 1 shows distinct Rossinian influence with vocal display to the fore. Bellini includes no secco recitative, whilst examples of typically Bellinian melody are more prevalent in act two. Bianca’s cabaletta in act 1, Contena appien (CD 1 tr.14) is not only typically Bellinian the composer used the melody again in the cabaletta to Casta Diva in Norma. Bianca’s romanza in act 2 (CD 2 tr.5) is distinctive of the composer.

Whilst Bianca e Fernando might be considered musically uneven, it shows a considerable advance from Adelson e Salvini and was very well received in Naples, Genoa and later Rome, Madrid and Barcelona. After performances in Rome in 1837 it died out until 1976 when Italian Radio gave a concert performance conducted by Gabriele Ferro.

Whilst being neither as perfectly balanced as a studio recording, nor as well cast as an international studio issue, these live performances of Bellini’s first two operatic works from Catania in 1992 are well worth hearing. Although musically uneven, they give excellent opportunity to hear the promise of the young Bellini. That promise was to come into significant fruition with his next opera.

Il Pirata - Melodramma in two acts (1827)
Ernesto, Duke of Caldora, and Anjou partisan - Roberto Frontali, (baritone); Imogene, Ernesto’s wife, previously in love with Gualtiero - Lucia Aliberti (soprano); Gualtiero, Count of Moltanto, now an Aragonese pirate leader - Stuart Neill (tenor); Itulbo Companion of Gualtiero - José Guadalupe Reyes (tenor); Il solitario, a hermit and former tutor of Gualtiero - Kelly Anderson (bass)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Deutschen Oper Berlin/Marcello Viotti
rec. studio, Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin-Dahlem, July 1994
CDs 5-6 [79.12 + 65.13]

Bianca e Fernando drew Bellini’s work to the attention of Domenico Barbaja, the impresario who had taken Rossini to Naples. By now, Barbaja was not only the impresario of the Royal Theatres of Naples, but also of La Scala, Milan and of the leading theatre in Vienna. Early in 1827 Barbaja invited Bellini to compose for La Scala. The young composer left Naples in April 1827 to go to Milan. The move was to have a fundamental effect on his compositional and private life. In Milan Bellini was introduced to the classically educated Felice Romani, the official librettist of La Scala with whom he would collaborate in the creation of all his remaining and greatest operas except his last. Romani provided around one hundred and twenty libretti to various composers in the primo ottocento including Rossini, Donizetti, Mayr, Mercadante and many others. Bellini also became romantically entangled with Giuditta Turina the unhappy wife of a rich silk merchant who she had married at the age of sixteen on the arrangement of her parents. She had first met Bellini in Genoa when travelling with her brother for the opening of the new theatre. But it was back in Milan that the two became lovers. The affair lasted over five years until her husband discovered a compromising letter from Bellini who was then in Paris; a divorce followed.

Bellini’s third opera, Il pirata, was premiered at La Scala in October 1827. Enthusiastically received it was performed fifteen times in the season, always to full houses, and became Bellini’s first international success. Despite the presence of Rubini, Bellini made a determined and significant attempt to move away from the Rossinian manner of florid decoration towards more dramatic effect in his music. As well as this move there are also more significant, although subservient, signs of the long flowing melodies that were to become the composer’s hallmark.

The action of the story takes place in the 13th century in the vicinity of the Caldaro Castle, Sicily. Gualtiero, the exiled Count of Montalto is living as the head of a band of pirates. He returns to find that his beloved Imogene has, in order to save her father’s life, been forced to marry his enemy, Ernesto, who discovers the two lovers at a secret rendezvous. A duel follows and Ernesto is killed. Gualtiero is arrested and condemned to death and when Imogene discovers this she loses her reason.

Il pirata is one of only two recordings in this collection made in studio conditions. Somewhat perversely, given the sparse discography of Bellini’s early operas, there exists a 1970 studio recording by EMI. This features Caballé as an incomparable Imogene with her husband, Bernabé Marti, a strained Gualtiero, and Piero Cappuccilli as Ernesto (CMS 567121 2). Whilst the EMI Rome recording is rather over-bright and edgy, the recording here, made in the Jesus-Christus- Kirche, Berlin, is warm and reverberant. As Gualtiero, the American tenor Stuart Neill, who recorded the role of Riccardo for Philips in their 1996 recording of Verdi’s first opera, Oberto, has a bright lyric tenor. His clean forward tone and phrasing are pleasant on the ear, but he is no Rubini and tends to squeeze his tone a little on the highest Cs and Ds (CD 1 trs.5-8) and in the highly decorated cabaletta Ma non fia sempre odiata of act two (CD 2 tr.17). Lucia Aliberti as Imogene is no Caballé. However, she has an enviable reputation as an accomplished and admired singer in this genre. She brings plenty of character and well-supported flexible singing to her role. She is particularly affecting in the duets with Gualtiero (CD 1 trs.17-19 and CD 2 trs.9-10) as well as singing a convincing finale (CD 2 trs.20-23). As Ernesto, Roberto Frontali sings strongly but with some lack of variation of tone (CD 1 trs.21-22). Marcello Viotti paces the work well, giving Bellini’s dramatic thrust its due whilst also allowing prominence to those moments of flowing cantilena that are also evident in the orchestral solo passage that introduces the last scene (CD 2 tr.19). The chorus, who have plenty to sing, do so with verve and character.

Il pirata was revived in 1935 for the centenary of Bellini’s death with Gigli as Gualtiero. It was featured at La Scala in 1958 with Callas as Imogene and Franco Corelli in the tenor role. Montserrat Caballé sang Imogene in concert at Carnegie Hall, New York, in 1966, at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino in 1967, in Philadelphia in 1968 and in concert at Drury Lane, London in 1969. Lucia Aliberti first sang the role at the Valle d’Itria Festival in 1987.

The great success of Il pirata gave Bellini a privilege not enjoyed by Rossini until very late in his career, and never by Donizetti. It was the choice of space and time between compositions. Invited to compose for the first season of the new opera house in Genoa, the Teatro Carlo Felice, Bellini offered his revised Bianca e Fernando. It was a greater success with the public even than at Naples and ran for twenty-one performances. Bellini turned down a commission from Turin and returned to Milan hoping to write a new work for the coming Carnival Season at La Scala. Meanwhile Barbaja having already taken the singers and production of Il pirata to Venice took it to Naples with Rubini in the cast in each case.

Barbaja’s offer to Bellini in June 1828 was for an opera to open the Carnival Season at La Scala on 26 December. The composer negotiated a fee of 4350 francs, twice that for Il pirata. Bellini and his friends started a search for a suitable subject before settling on a play that became La straniera his fourth opera.

La straniera (The stranger) - Melodramma in two acts (1829)
Alaida, The stranger - Renata Scotto (soprano); Il barone di Valdeburgo - Domenico Trimarchi (baritone); Arturo - Renato Cioni (tenor); Isoletta - Elena Zilio (mezzo); Il Priore - Maurizio Mazzieri (baritone); Il signore di Montolino - Enrico Campi (bass)
Osburgo Orchestra/Nino Sanzogno
rec. live, Palermo, 10 December 1968
CDs 7-8 [63.47 + 56.33] 

Barbaja’s offer to Bellini in June 1828 was for an opera to open the Carnival Season at La Scala on 26 December. The composer negotiated a fee of 4350 francs, twice that for Il pirata. Bellini and his friends started a search for a suitable subject before settling on a play that became La straniera, his fourth opera.

La straniera was based on a contemporary novel, L’Étrangčre staged as a spoken play in Naples in 1825. Set around the thirteenth century in Brittany, the stranger of the title role is a mysterious woman, dressed in black, who has come to live on the island of Motolino where she lives in a cottage deep in the forest. The local peasants know her as Alaide. They suppose her to be a witch, little suspecting that she is the cast-off wife of the King of France who had married her bigamously and, threatened with excommunication, had then forsaken and banished her. Already engaged to Isoletta, Alaide enchants Arturo and he declares his love. She tries to send him away, but Arturo becomes jealous of her visitor little realising it is her brother known as Valdeburgo. He fights and wounds Valdeburgo leaving him for dead. Alaide reveals Valdeburgo’s true identity to Arturo and goes to seek her brother. She is covered in his blood when the local villagers arrive. They accuse her of killing him. Seeking to safeguard Arturo she accepts this accusation. When she is put on trial Arturo confesses to the murder. Valdeburgo appears at the trial, very much alive, and persuades Arturo to go through with the wedding to Isoletta. Arturo agrees on condition that the brother brings Alaide to the church. All ends in tragedy as it is revealed who Alaide is and Arturo falls on his sword.

Bellini did not want to repeat the musically dramatic form of Il pirata, and other contemporary traditions. He did ask Romani for plenty of dramatic situations as well as a major contribution from the chorus. This desire to break from convention results in no entrance aria for Alaide or Arturo, but a short orchestral introduction followed by a barcarolle-type chorus (CD 1 tr.1). Elsewhere there is much declamatory singing and recitative. Whilst there are three arias within dramatic situations for Alaide, and one each for Isoletta and Valdeburgo, there is none for the tenor Arturo. Bellini had desperately wanted Rubini for the role of Arturo, but he was contracted to Naples and Barbaja was not prepared to alter that arrangement. The composer’s doubts about the contracted tenor may explain why Arturo has no aria. That being said, for the following year’s revival when Bellini did have the services of Rubini, and wrote extensive transpositions to show off the latter’s vocal prowess, he did not write a tenor aria then either.

Bellini started the composition in early September. He had hardly begun when Romani fell ill. The directors of La Scala offered another librettist, which Bellini refused relishing the compatibility he had found with the poet. Consequently La straniera was not premiered until 14 February 1829 with Rossini’s L’assedio di Corinto opening the season at La Scala. La straniera was a triumph at its first performance and performed twenty-six times in its first season. The contemporary critics were more circumspect questioning whether Bellini’s concern for innovation and dramatic situation had gone too far. An obsessive reader of reviews Bellini may have been persuaded to the same conclusion. Certainly Bellini had moved on from an era when a desperate tenor who kills himself required a de rigueur aria or mad scene!

La straniera was performed in Palermo in December 1968 with the lyrico spinto soprano Renato Scotto in the title role and it is this live performance that is included here. Scotto also sang the role in Venice in 1972 and Edinburgh in 1974, as did Montserrat Caballé in New York in 1969. Since then sopranos as diverse as Elena Suliotis (1971), Carol Neblett (1989), Lucia Alibert (1988 and 1990) and Renée Fleming (1993) have undertaken the role. On the recent studio recording from Opera Rara the role is sung by the lyric coloratura Patricia Ciofi (see review). Except for Callas’s La Sonnambula from the 1955 Edinburgh Festival, the performance is oldest of the recordings in this collection. The age and circumstances of the recording are reflected in the rather thin sound with the orchestra well recessed and the voices more forward. The whole sounds rather echoey.

Whatever the limitations of the sound - and it is are possible to overstate these - the singing, drama and sheer vivacity of this live performance compensate considerably. The audience are drawn in by the performers and are very enthusiastic. Scotto’s Alaide is a tour de force with her high notes in Alaide’s entrance romance and at the conclusion of the declamatory passage between her and Arturo being strong and secure (CD 1 trs.9-11). Elsewhere her normal full-blown vocal characterisation and dramatic involvement is everything one could wish for. Renato Cioni, who sang the lead tenor role in Joan Sutherland’s first recordings of Lucia di Lammermoor (Decca 467 688-2) and Rigoletto (Decca 443 853-2), sings the aria-less tenor role of Arturo with strength and good voice. Domenico Trimarchi, who sings Valdeburgo in all three of Scotto’s listed performances is a little dry-toned from time to time but characterises the role well. He gets his act two aria (CD 2 trs.6-7) whilst the well sung Isoletta of Elena Zilio doesn’t in the heavily cut act two. The experienced Nino Sanzogno on the rostrum brings the dramatic points into full focus whilst the chorus are enjoyably vibrant.

Zaira - lyric tragedy in two acts (1829)
Zaira, Lusignano’s daughter, now a slave of the Sultan - Katia Ricciarelli (soprano); Orosmane, The Sultan of Jerusalem - Simone Alaimo (bass); Corasimo, the Sultan’s vizier - Ramon Vargas (tenor); Nerestano, a French knight, Zaira’s brother - Alexandra Papadjakou (mezzo); Lusignano, a royal prince now a prisoner of the Sultan - Luigi Roni (bass)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro Massimo Bellini of Catania/Paolo Olmi
rec. live, Catania, September 1990
CDs 9-10 [77.46 + 74.59]

Just when Bellini might have been looking for plenty of time to plan his next operatic work after La straniera, and even before its premiere, along came an invitation that he perhaps felt he could not refuse. It was to compose an opera for the opening of the rebuilt Teatro Ducale in Parma, now the Teatro Regio. The commission had been offered first to Rossini, who, fully engaged in Paris, declined. What Bellini hadn’t bargain for was that the Archduchess Marie Louise of Austria, the ruler of Parma and Napoleon’s widow, had asked a local to prepare a libretto. He did so. Bellini considered the subject passé and also wanted Romani whose verses he responded to. In the contract the composer had the right to decide the subject. In the event, and rather late in the day, Bellini won and composer and poet travelled to Parma in the middle of March 1829 with the opening scheduled for May. The poet and composer decided on the subject of Zaire, generally considered at the time to be Voltaire’s finest play.

The plot of the play, that became Bellini’s fifth opera, Zaira. Romani’s libretto, which sticks closely to Voltaire is set in Jerusalem at the time of the Crusades. The Sultan Orosmane loves his captive slave Zaira who as a child was kidnapped; she returns his love and a wedding is planned. A French knight, Nerestano arrives with money to free ten French knights. Orosmane allows this to happen merely detaining the elderly Lusignano and Zaira. When Zaira begs the generous Orosmane to free Lusignano he agrees but the elderly prince recognises Zaira and the French knight Nerestano as his long lost daughter and son. Horrified that his daughter is now a Muslim Lusignano asks as a dying wish that she be baptised. Zaira postpones the wedding to achieve this. Orosmane, having intercepted a letter to Zaira from her brother, thinks it is a love letter and goes to the baptism. Seeing Nerestano there he considers his suspicions justified and stabs Zaira. When Nerestano reveals the truth, Orosmane kills himself.

On arrival in Parma Romani had problems with the local police for wearing a moustache. The upper lip adornment was considered a symbolism of liberalism and outlawed in the Duchy. Rather than remove it Romani prepared to depart leaving the new opera house, dear to the Archduchess’s heart, without an opera libretto for the composer of their choice. It required the lady herself to grant Romani exemption!

For whatever reason Bellini forsook his normal conscientiousness as he awaited Romani’s verses. Both he and his librettist were seen about town during the day, and late into the evening, when they should have been working. The result was the postponement of the scheduled opening of the new theatre and no little local ill feeling, the composer being accused of caring nothing for Parma and its new theatre. Certainly Bellini was not able to have Romani rewrite passages with which he was not happy, as had been the case with the finale of La straniera. The outcome was Bellini’s first and only outright failure at its premiere on 16 May 1829, three months after that of the acclaimed La straniera in Milan.

In Zaira Bellini, whilst wanting emotional and dramatic situations from his librettist, did not favour the radical approach of La straniera. The music is immediately recognisable as his from the frequency of the melodic lines that are known to characterise his later operas. Despite being aware of Zaira’s limitations, Bellini had belief in his music and withdrew the score. Seemingly turning his back on the work he never tried to revise and revive it. The reasons for this attitude become more obvious with his next composition.

Zaira was performed nine months after Bellini’s death and then not again until 1976. The latter performance, like the recording here, took place at Bellini’s hometown of Catania and featured Renata Scotto in the title role. Like Scotto, Katia Ricciarelli in the title role in this performance, sang heavier repertoire as well and by the time of this recording she had sung several of Verdi’s lyrico spinto roles. The heaviness of demand in those roles is evident in the opening scenes where Ricciarelli’s voice sounds too big and thick in the florid music as Zaira expresses her joy (CD 1 trs.5-6). Thankfully the soprano finds form later on, fining down her voice and tone to give a highly impressive portrayal of the title part. In all Zaira’s moments of happiness, uncertainty and crisis her vocal characterisation is first class as is her phrasing. As Orosmane, Simone Alaimo’s lean bass is also a further strength with his clear diction a welcome hallmark, albeit that a little more sonority of tone would have been welcome. However, Alaimo’s voice is clearly differentiated from that of Luigi Roni as Lusignano, he having sung Orosmane in the 1976 production. Alaimo makes what he can of the somewhat dramatically flaccid finale (CD 2 trs.15-17) and is heard to good effect and with excellent characterisation in duet with Zaira and Orosmane’s Ritorni al tuo sembiante (CD 1 tr.10). As the Sultan’s vizier Ramón Vargas sings sweetly in his limited opportunities, whilst rich and fulsome tone and good characterisation can be heard from Alexandra Papadjakou as Lusignano in the finale to act 1 (CD 1 trs.20-22 and CD 2 tr.1) and in act 2 (CD 2 trs.10-12). With Paolo Olmi on the rostrum giving Bellini’s melodies full justice, this well-tracked disc of the 1990 Catania performance, which has few rivals on record, is very welcome.

……………………………………………

PART 2 - from CD 11 to CD 24

I Capuleti e I Montecchi - Lyric tragedy in two acts (1830)
Romeo, head of the Montecchi, in love with Giulietta - Clara Polito (soprano); Capellio, head of the Capuleti - Federico Sacchi (bass); Giuletta, a Capuleti in love with Romeo - Patrizia Ciofi (soprano); Tebaldo, a Capuleti, Giuletta’s intended husband - Danilo Formaggia (tenor); Lorenzo, a physician and friend of Capellio - Nicola Amodio (tenor)
Orchestra Internazionale d'Italia. Bratislava Chamber Choir/Luciano Acocella
rec. live, Martina Franca Festival, August 2005
CDs 11-12 [77.56 + 51.18]

After the disaster of Zaira Bellini took a long holiday with his lover before returning to Milan in June 1829 to meet up with various theatre impresarios. Alessandro Lanari, who worked in association with Venice’s La Fenice theatre wanted to introduce the composer to the city. He would have liked to commission Bellini to write a new work for the forthcoming Carnival Season commencing on 26 December 1829. However, this was not possible, as both Persiani and Pacini had already been commissioned, with Romani booked to provide the libretto for each. The shrewd Lanari, aware that Pacini had also accepted a commission from Turin and may not fulfil his obligations to Venice, offered Bellini a revival of Il pirata under the composer’s personal supervision for January 1830. To this opportunity Lanari added an understanding that if Pacini did not deliver, Bellini would be invited to fulfil the commission for a new work.

Bellini went to Venice in December 1829 and Il pirata was given to acclaim on 16 January 1830 by which date Pacini had failed to turn up with his opera scheduled for the last week in February and Bellini signed a contract on 20 January. With the carnival Season ending on 22 March time was short for composer and librettist and both took short cuts. Romani revised and simplified a libretto titled Giulietta e Romeo that he had previously written for Nicola Vaccai and which had been staged in Milan in 1825. With barely six weeks to the premiere Bellini, like his librettist, also took short cuts.

The story suited Bellini’s sensibilities and also he saw, perhaps, an opportunity to use music from the failed Zaira. Charles Osborne (The Bel Canto Operas, Methuen, 1994) suggests that Bellini recycled nearly half the music from Zaira into his new opera. Straight plagiarism was much too risky and Bellini worked very hard at adapting the old music much of which underwent major changes. This extensive re-use of music from Zaira helps to explain why Bellini never sought to revise the earlier work. He also used several other melodies from Zaira in both Norma, and to a lesser extent, in Beatrice di Tenda.

Bellini’s I Capuleti e I Montecchi was eventually premiered, a little later than planned, on 11 March 1830. It was an immediate and immense success and was performed eight times in the ten days left before the end of the season. After the third performance a huge crowd preceded by a military band playing music from his operas conducted Bellini to his lodgings! The opera was seen twenty-five times at La Scala, and elsewhere in Italy, before quickly spreading abroad. Although it is not stated, the edition featured in this collection is that given to open the Carnival season at La Scala on 26 December 1830. There are also errors as to the gender and vocal registers of the singers in the accompanying booklet. These are correct as given above and referred to in the narrative below.

The story predates Shakespeare and appears to have been derived from an earlier novella. Set in thirteenth century Verona the opera tells the tragic story of Romeo, a Montague, who loves Giulietta, daughter of Capellio leader of a rival faction whose son has been killed by him. Despite Giuletta returning Romeo’s love Capellio determines to marry her to Tebaldo, one of his own faction. Romeo attempts to persuade Giulietta to go away with him but she refuses to leave her family. Lorenzo persuades Giulietta to take a potion that will make her appear dead. Lorenzo is unable to convey this information to Romeo who hearing her funeral dirge as he prepares to fight Tebaldo rushes to her tomb and takes poison. Giulietta revives as Romeo dies. She in turn falls dead on his body.

Like Vaccai before him Bellini wrote the major role of Romeo for the mezzo-soprano voice. Whether this was because he thought such casting would better fulfil his romantic and poetical vision of the role than a tenor, or whether the presence of the formidable mezzo-soprano Giuditta Grisi convinced him, is open to debate. In the 1960s Claudio Abbado no less cast the tenor Giacomo Arragal in the role alongside Renata Scotto as Giulietta at La Scala. With the necessary transpositions it certainly removed the romanticism from the role and is generally considered a failure. Therefore I was surprised to see the name Carlo Polito as the singer of Romeo in the booklet and I listened with some trepidation. I had two surprises. First, this Romeo is definitely not a tenor, nor is the singer a mezzo; rather she is a flexible lyric soprano. This caused me to look back at the Martina Festival web site and see who had sung the role in 2005. It turns out to have been Clara Polito. Web searches didn’t enlighten me to what is her preferred vocal designation. The ranges of the soprano and the lyric mezzo-soprano voice have much overlap, with the centre of the voice, its upper or lower extension, and particularly its timbre, determining singers’ preferred designation and fach. Further research indicates it was a definite policy to cast two light sopranos for the roles. It seems that there was a precedent at La Scala in 1830. However, another source states that two mezzos sang the roles that opened the Scala Carnival of 1830-31. Also, the role of Lorenzo, normally sung by a bass, is taken by Nicola Amodio a tenor. Again this change of vocal register, and the necessary transpositions, seems to be related to what Bellini amended for the La Scala production.

In this recording and without a libretto in front of the listener, it is sometimes difficult to determine whether it is Romeo or Giulietta singing, particularly in the duets. Patrizia Ciofi’s warm flexible voice is particularly expressive as Giulietta with Clara Polito hardly less so. Both have secure coloratura, although with the common failing of sometimes poor diction, as they soar above the stave. Having libretti from other recorded versions of the work, I was able to enjoy the considerable vocal accomplishments of both singers in both duet and characteristic Bellini melodic aria to the full. For those without the benefit of a printed libretto in front of them may find their enjoyment compromised although it is contained, in Italian on CD 25. Also, I must add that compared with the formidable recorded performances of Romeo by Agnes Baltsa, live from Covent Garden (EMI 7 64846 2), Vesselina Kasarova (RCA 09026 68899 2 which gives Vaccai’s finale as an appendix) and Janet Baker (EMI nla) giving great vocal and emotional weight to the role, Clara Polito’s soprano lacks that something extra. Certainly the tonal colour of a mezzo gives more dramatic thrust to the conclusion in particular when Romeo finds Giulietta’s body and dies (CD 2 trs.10-11) leaving her to waken, pine and then die herself (tr.12). Federico Sacchi as Capellio and Danilo Formaggia as Tebaldo are more adequate than distinguished whilst the orchestra and chorus add strength to the performance under the baton of Luciano Acocella. The recording is good and the disturbance by warm applause limited.

This performance, and that of La Sonnambula below, was recorded at the Festival della Valle d’Itria in the ancient town of Martina Franca at the heel of Italy. The major productions of the Festival take place in the open air in the courtyard of the Ducal Palace. The acoustic of recordings is often influenced by the presence of reflections, or otherwise, from the scenery in use. This performance is also available on Dynamic DVD 33504.

The fragile Bellini was greatly stressed by the pressure of the necessarily rapid composition of I Capuleti e I Montecchi even to the extent of curtailing his regular letters to Florimo and his mistress. After the final performance in Venice in March 1830 he returned to Milan in poor health where he was taken in and nursed by a wealthy family before going to recuperate on Lake Como. Here he became friendly with the famous soprano Giuditta Pasta who lived nearby and who would sing in two of his last three operas. From Como Bellini negotiated his next contract for La Scala. Whatever the success of his previous works they would be eclipsed by the new one, which would not, however, be premiered at La Scala!

La Sonnambula - Melodramma in two acts (1831)
Amina, an orphan brought up by Teresa - Patrizia Ciofi, (soprano); Elvino, a rich young village landowner - Giuseppe Morino, (tenor); Count Rodolfo, the local Lord of the Manor - Giovanni Furlanetto (bass); Teresa, a mill owner and Amina’s foster mother - Vitalba Mosca (mezzo); Lisa, an innkeeper in love with Elvino - Maria Costanza Nocentini (soprano)
Orchestra Internazionale d'Italia. & Sluk Chamber Choir of Bratislava/Giuliano Carella
rec. live, Martina Franca Festival, July 1994
CDs 13-14 [79.14 + 72.01]
La Sonnambula - Melodramma in two acts (1831)
Amina - Maria Callas (soprano); Elvino - Cesare Valletti (tenor); Count Rodolfo - Giuseppe Modesti (bass); Lisa - Eugenia Ratti (soprano); Teresa - Gabriella Carturan (soprano)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro alla Scala of Milan/Leonard Bernstein
rec. live, La Scala, Milan, 5 March 1955
CDs 21-22 [74.58 + 66.01]

In May 1830 the Duke of Litta and two rich associates formed a Society to sponsor opera at La Scala. They were concerned to raise the musical standards that had seen Rossini, Meyerbeer and others decamp to Paris. They engaged most of the famous singers of the time including Giuditta Pasta and the tenor Rubini. Donizetti and Bellini, whom they considered to be the two best active Italian composers, were each contracted to write an opera for the season to a libretto set by the renowned Romani, widely recognised as the best in the business. Litta and his associates failed to secure La Scala for their plans, which were realised at the Teatro Carcano. Litta bought Bellini’s release from his existing contract for 1500 francs. Aware of this the composer pushed up his own fee to twice that which La Scala would have paid him as well as having half the property of the new score. The details, as well as insights into the hectic life of composers at that time, and whose works were not protected by copyright, are graphically described by Stelios Galatopoulos in his Bellini, Life, Times, Music (Sanctuary 2002 p187 et seq).

The rapid composition of I Capuleti e i Montecchi, completed in only 26 days, had left the often-ailing Bellini in poor health. It was only later in 1830, after he had completed the libretto for Donizetti’s great success Anna Bolena in the Carcano season, that Romani commenced his work for Bellini. The chosen subject was an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s sensational ‘Hernani’ produced in Paris the previous February. Bellini set music for at least five scenes before it became apparent that with political unrest in France, Belgium and Poland the Milan police censors would not allow it. The outcome was a total change to the politically innocuous subject of La Sonnambula based on Scribe’s ballet-pantomime. The plot concerns the young and innocent Amina who is about to be married to Elvino. Amina sleepwalks and ends up in the room of the local count who has recently returned to the village incognito. Tipped off by Teresa who loves him, Elvino finds Amina in this compromised location and denounces her. Eventually he is convinced of her innocence when he sees her sleepwalking along a very narrow plank over a dangerous mill wheel.

The change of subject meant that Bellini did not start to compose La Sonnambula until January 1831 and the scheduled premiere was put back to 6 March. The opera was a resounding success with the composer’s evolving musical style being much admired. The work established Bellini firmly on the international stage much as Anna Bolena had done for Donizetti; two outstanding successes for the Duke of Litta and his associates. Both successes owed much to the presence of Giuditta Pasta and Rubini who had created the main roles in the two operas. Pasta had a most unusual voice. Stendhal in his Vie de Rossini (1824) described it as extending from as low as bottom A and rising as high as C sharp or a slightly sharpened D. It was her dramatic interpretations as much as her range from contralto to high soprano that appealed to audiences. In our own time, perhaps only Callas has shown anything near the variety of vocal colour and dramatic gifts that were Pasta’s stock in trade. Her interpretation is heard on the second of two recordings of the work in this collection, made in the year the recently slimmed Callas was undoubted queen of La Scala as well as being as much on the front pages as on the arts pages of the Italian daily papers. She was the diva of the moment appearing no less than thirty-seven times in operas as varied as Norma, La Traviata, Fedora and Il barbiere di Siviglia as well as La Sonnambula.

The 1994 recording of La Sonnambula in this collection (CDs 13-14) is, like that of I Capuleti e i Montecchi, taken from live performances at Martina Franca and features the Italian lyric coloratura Patrizia Ciofi in the title role. It was her first effort at the role, she having sung the minor role Lisa in Trieste a few months earlier. In 2008 it is still in her repertoire. Whilst her young fresh voice is in many ways ideally suited to the virginal Amina, her lack of experience in the role is highlighted by the comparison with Callas in the 1955 recording from La Scala (CDs 21-22). Patrizia Ciofi is light-toned and flexible with a good trill (CD 13 trs.4-5) and secure coloratura. But it is in the vocal representation of the various situations that Amina finds herself in, that at this stage in her experience of the role, she suffers in comparison with Callas. This is particularly evident in the sleepwalking scene over the Mill Wheel, when the villagers watch in fear for Amina’s well-being (CD 14 trs.15-16). At this point Callas’s singing is superbly expressive with a somewhat disembodied tone, and often sotto voce seeming on a wisp of breath (CD 22 trs. 14-15). In the finale both sopranos open out with vocal security as Amina expresses her great joy as Elvino, finally convinced of her innocence having seen her sleepwalking, understands how she was found in the Count’s bedroom, and takes her back as his bride (CD 14 tr.18 and CD 23 tr.17).

Of the two tenors Cesare Valletti is vocally by far the most sensitive with a lovely mezza voce in the act one duet with Amina, Prendi, l’anel ti dono, with its delightful elegiac Bellinian melody (CD 21 tr.9). Likewise he exhibits a soft diminuendo towards the end of the act (CD 22 tr.1) as Lisa’s machinations cause him to doubt Amina’s fidelity. However, he is pressed and forces his voice a little in the more dramatic outbursts of act two as Elvino wishes Amina were erased from his heart (CD 14.tr7). In the Martina Franca performance Giuseppe Morino, whilst having distinctly more metal in his voice and a bright forward tone, also squeezes his notes in the same dramatic outburst. The Lisa of Maria Costanza Nocentini is far preferable to Eugenia Ratti at La Scala who sounds shrill (CD 13 tr.2 and CD 21 tr.2). Vi raviso, as the incognito Count enjoys seeing the pretty places of the village of his youth, is sung with good expression, gravitas and sonority by both Giovanni Furlanetto (CD 13 tr.12) and Giuseppe Modesti (CD 21 tr12). Both basses also contribute expressively as Count Rodolfo talks sense about sleepwalking into the unbelieving Elvino.

Neither of the two recordings is satisfactory acoustically. That from La Scala has the voices and orchestra well recessed and sounds its age. The audience is often over-enthusiastic with the gallery venting their favourable emotions to the full. At Martina Franca the sound is excessively echoey with the voices often seemingly disembodied. Under Leonard Bernstein the La Scala orchestra plays the music as to the manner born, he and they bringing out the nuances of Bellini’s score in a way few others have done on record. The downside is that it is a performance from a period when quite savage cuts were acceptable. The La Scala version is around twelve minutes shorter than its companion.

There are plenty of studio recordings for competition in this opera, and I will continue to play my favourites alongside the wholly involving La Scala one here. Callas’s own 1957 studio recording does not have quite the lightness in act one as this does, and she also adopts an excessively occluded tone in act two (see Callas complete studio recordings review).

Norma - Lyric tragedy in two acts (1831)
Norma, High Priestess of the Druid temple - Dimitra Theodossiou (soprano); Pollione, Roman Proconsul in Gaul and father of Norma’s children - Carlo Ventre (tenor); Adalgisa, a virgin of the temple - Daniela Barcellona (mezzo); Oroveso, Archdruid and Norma’s father - Simon Orfila (bass); Clotilde, Norma’s confidante - Roberta Minnucci (soprano); Flavio, a Roman centurion - Flavio Pavan (tenor)
Chorus Lyrico Marchigiana; Orchestra Regionale delle Marche/Paola Arrivabeni
rec. live, August 2007
CDs 15-16 [78.08 + 77.06] 
Norma - Lyric tragedy in two acts (1831)
Montserrat Caballé, Robleto Merolla, Fiorenza Cossotto, Ivo Vinco
Turin RAI Orchestra and Chorus/Georges Prętre
rec. radio studio, Turin, 1971
CDs 23-24 [72.00 + 73.39]

After the enormous success of La Sonnambula Bellini was commissioned to write an opera to open the 1831-32 Carnival Season at La Scala on 26 December. With Romani as librettist the chosen subject was Norma. For once Romani was not his usual dilatory self and delivered the verses to enable the composer, who had asked for a reduction from the original length, to complete the work by the end of November. This meant that the rehearsals and modifications could go ahead without rush.

The plot of Norma concerns the eponymous Druid priestess who, despite her vows of chastity, has secretly had two children by the Roman proconsul Pollione. She discovers that he has transferred his affections to another priestess, her friend Adalgisa. Norma tries to persuade Pollione to renounce Adalgisa and return to her, even threatening to kill their children. When he refuses she confesses her guilt publicly and is condemned to die on a funeral pyre. Pollione, moved by her actions, asks to die with her. 

The most modern of the two (CDs 15 and 16) recordings included in this collection derives from performances at the 2007 Macerata Festival. The city, in the Marche area of Italy, has hosted a Festival for over thirty years. The main venue for productions is the Arena Sferistero. It is in one of the most unusual arena venues having originally been built in the 1820s for the practice of the sport called pallone, an obscure form of handball. Its massive size was recognised in the 1960s and it was restored and now seats over six thousand spectators. Its colossal back wall provides a width of stage that frequently challenges producers, whilst also acting as a sound reflector avoiding the voices seemingly disappearing into space.

The older of the recordings, from 1971, (CDs 23 and 24) features the redoubtable Montserrat Caballé in the title role. It was perhaps her finest role and one she dominated on the world opera stage for most of the 1970s. Various pirated versions of her performances in Barcelona (1970), Paris (1972) and Vienna (1974) have circulated along with a memorable video of her performance at the 1974 Orange Festival with the Mistral blowing. This was recorded for French television and is now available on DVD (Hardy Classics HCD 4003). I had not heard this 1971 Turin Radio recording before. In front of a perceptive live audience, it sounds like a concert performance. There are no stage noises but there are intrusions for applause; the overall acoustic is satisfactory. The role of the younger priestess Adalgisa is sung by the mezzo-soprano Fiorenza Cossotto, who along with Shirley Verrett was Caballé’s frequent partner in her performances, including the 1972 studio recording (RCA). Both Amina in La Sonnambula and Norma were written for Giuditta Pasta and her formidable range. Despite her extensive repertoire, Caballé never sang Amina on stage or record. The fact that she did sing both the eponymous Salome and Aida, spinto roles, as well as many bel canto roles, indicates the range, strength and varied quality of her voice. Norma requires a big voiced soprano with the breath control for Bellini’s long, elegiac lines, as well as finely controlled legato. It has been reported that Bellini rewrote Casta Diva eight times before he was satisfied. When Pasta was doubtful if she could sing it in the written key of G, she asked Bellini to change it to F. His response was to ask her to sing it in G every day for a week and if she still could not manage, he would rewrite it in F. It is thought he did so on the morning of the premiere.

Pollione requires a tenor of similar hefty vocal qualities. This was no opera for Rubini with his florid coloratura and head voice. The role of Pollione, the Roman Proconsul who betrays Norma’s love for her younger colleague, was written for Domenico Donzelli (1790-1873). The strong-voiced tenor, who could sing strongly and dramatically in the large theatre, was contracted to the theatre for the season, specifically with Bellini’s opera in mind.

The first challenge for the singer of Norma herself is the opening aria, Casta Diva. Its long legato lines follow immediately after only the relatively brief voice-warming recitative Sediose voci as Norma warns her father, Oroveso, against raising the voices of rebellion (CD 23 Trs.7-8). Immediately, Caballé’s qualities of vocal strength, middle voice support and dramatic declamation, with a minimum of vibrato for dramatic effect - all of which mark her portrayal throughout - are to be heard. That is not to forget her trademark pianissimos, floated it seems on a thread of breath in Dormono entrambo as Norma approaches her sleeping children with the intention of stabbing them to death. Unable to carry out the deed as they waken, she calls Adalgisa (CD 2 tr.5) sung by the creamy toned Fiorenza Cossotto (CD 23 tr11). Such magical vocal moments abound in this performance, particularly in the expression of the differing emotional content of Norma’s duets with the young priestess Adalgisa, her rival for Pollione’s love (CD 23 trs.16-17 and continuing on CD 24 trs1-3 of act one and CD 24 trs.5-8 of act two). Cossotto’s creamy and even chest notes are an ideal counterbalance and match for Caballé’s dramatic middle and upper voice. The interplay and balance of their two voices in the last of those duets, which includes the lovely melodies of Mira o Norma, are enhanced by the obvious sense of each singer being fully conversant with the pace and vocal nuances of the other. This is operatic theatre at its best.

Neither of the two men in the earlier recording are a vocal match for the ladies. As Oroveso, Ivo Vinco is at least steady if a little dry-toned (CD 23 tr.2). Robleto Merolla as Pollione rather bawls in his entrance aria (CD 23 trs.3-4) but improves for the less vocally stressful recitative interplays with the two ladies. Whatever their own limitations, Vinco and Merolla are far superior to their counterparts on the 2007 recording from Macerata. Carlo Ventre’s Pollione is effortful and with little ingratiating tone (CD 15 trs.3-4). He uses stentorian tone unremittingly and with little characterisation. The Oroveso of Simon Orfila is feeble and unsteady as well as lacking vocal weight and sonority. In my review of the DVD of a Macerata performance I suggested Dimitra Theodossiou has some claim to be the current leading exponent of the role of Norma. That may well be, but deprived of the visual distraction of the production and only the sound to judge by, I can only say that her portrayal lacks so much of what Caballé’s possesses. Her opening of Casta Diva is unsteady as is the climax as the martial music plays (CD 15 trs7 and 10). Theodossiou is well capable of soft singing with promising legato as in the recitative to Casta Diva and the aria itself, but far too often she sings with vocal abandon and excessive chest tones, losing vocal beauty, for overt and crude dramatic effect. Daniela Barcellona’s Adalgisa is vocally steadier but has nothing of the character of Cossotto’s interpretation. None of the singing of the elegiac melodies in Casta Diva (CD 15 trs7) and Mira o Norma (CD 16 tr.6) is aided by Paola Arrivabeni’s tempi, which after the overture get slower by the minute.

The Macerata recording lacks presence with the voices sounding distant. This performance has about ten minutes more music than the earlier one with Caballé that has cuts, mainly in the last scene (CD 24 trs 11-19).

Bellini’s Norma joined an illustrious list of operas that were failures on their first night, but went on to be recognised as great works. Some took longer than others. In the case of Norma it seems enemies of Pasta were to blame for the reception along with first night deficiencies. By the third performance Norma was recognised as a masterpiece and Pasta for her interpretation of the demanding title role. The eventual success was recognised in the thirty-nine performances of the opera at La Scala in that season. The opera is now widely recognised as Bellini’s greatest, with La Sonnambula a close second.

With Norma launched on its successful run, Bellini went first on holiday to Naples, where he was joined by his mistress, Giuditta Turina. He then went on alone to Catania, his home city in Sicily.

Beatrice di Tenda - Opera seria in two acts (1833)
Filippo Maria Visconti, Duke of Milan - Paolo Gavanelli (baritone); Beatrice Di Tenda, his wife - Lucia Aliberti, (soprano); Agnese Del Maino, beloved by Filippo and secretly in love with Orombello - Camille Capasso (mezzo); Orombello, Lord of Ventimiglia and secretly in love with Beatrice - Martin Thompson (tenor); Anichino, friend of Orombello - John David Dehaan (tenor); Rizzardo Del Maino, Agnese’s brother and confidant of Filippo - Raymond Martin (tenor)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin/Fabio Luisi
rec. studio, Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin. July 1992
CDs 17 and 18 [72.57 + 76.17]

Much had happened in the four years since Bellini had left Naples. He had established himself as an operatic composer of the first rank and become a celebrity. On his return after the triumph of Norma, he regularly visited his teacher in the conservatory and dedicated the opera to him. Along the journey from Naples to Catania local populations serenaded him with his music and upon his arrival in his home town on 3 March he was greeted by a large crowd as well as a band. Among the crowd were members of the council that had given him the grant to study in Naples along with most of the distinguished citizens of the town. Catania had become celebrated because of Bellini’s fame, and in order to show its affection for him, had cast a medal in his honour.

After a month in Catania and a short stay in Palermo, Bellini returned to Naples where he signed a contract to compose an opera for the 1832-33 Carnival Season at Venice’s La Fenice. This was to feature Giuditta Pasta. With that settled he went on holiday to Lake Como and to be near his mistress. He returned to Milan in September to agree on the libretto for the forthcoming production at La Fenice scheduled for 20 February 1833. The first subject agreed was based on a rather long play by Dumas. Shortly afterwards together with Pasta he saw a ballet based on the story of Beatrice di Tenda and Bellini saw in it a subject that he believed would inspire him. With Pasta’s encouragement, and despite the poet having composed verses he attempted to persuade Romani to change the chosen subject despite the poet pointing out that the final scene was very similar to that of Donizetti’s Anna Bolena. Eventually the poet concurred with the change, but by then it was November and Romani was already committed to produce librettos for four other operas and he did little about Bellini’s new subject. The fact that he would have to discard the verses already written did not exactly incite him to work on the new subject.

Bellini returned to Venice in early December to prepare for performances of Norma, which was scheduled to open the Carnival Season at La Fenice with Pasta in the eponymous role. With no verses for Beatrice di Tenda forthcoming from Romani, Bellini shared his worries with the impresario, Lanari, who did no more than lodge a protest against the poet with the Governor of Venice. This was passed to Milan and Romani was summoned to the police headquarters there. Needless to report he was in high dudgeon with Bellini when he arrived in Venice in early January. The two made an uneasy peace, but when further verses failed to arrive on time the scheduled February premiere was postponed to 6 March. The tension brought Bellini close to breaking-point and he pressed Giuditta Turina, his mistress, to come to Venice. Despite difficulties with her husband she did so. With further delay with the verses the premiere was postponed again to 16 March, ominously near the end of the Carnival Season due to end on 24 March. Grumbles began to be heard in Venice against Bellini and the management of La Fenice, with vitriolic correspondence in the local papers. These incited local hostility and at the premiere there was much booing and cries of Norma indicating that the audience believed the music was too similar. Although Pasta triumphed the opera itself fell flat despite what was described as a splendid production. At subsequent performances it was well received. In reality Bellini had composed the music in too short a time for his ideal method. Even so, it was by no means a failure and was seen widely in Italy where it was better received. It travelled abroad before the end of the decade arriving in London in 1836 and America six years later after which it disappeared from the repertory. It was revived in Catania in 1935 and at La Scala in 1961 with Joan Sutherland in the title role.

The action of the Beatrice di Tenda takes place at Binasco Castle, near Milan in 1418. Agnese, one of Beatrice’s ladies-in-waiting, is in love with Orombello who is secretly in love with Beatrice. Beatrice’s husband, Filippo, Duke of Milan, has become tired of her and lusts after Agnese. She plots to help him rid himself of his wife by falsely accusing Beatrice of being the lover of Orombello. Under torture Orombello, who does love Beatrice, makes a false confession, which he later retracts. Filippo orders the execution of Beatrice but hesitates to sign the death warrant after a plea for mercy by the now repentant Agnese. The arrival of Beatrice’s supporters demanding her release hardens him and he signs the warrant. The opera ends as Beatrice is led away to her execution.

Beatrice di Tenda may not be as full of the flowing Bellinean cantilena as Norma, or its successor and the composer’s final opera I Puritani, but it does have many of the composer’s attributes and is an ideal vehicle for bel canto singing. Although it has to be admitted that in the composition Bellini fails to integrate the coloratura thematically as he had done so successfully in Norma and La Sonnambula there are many wonderful moments and as Charles Osborne states it is surely the most unjustly neglected of Bellini’s less frequently performed works … containing some of the composer’s finest and most characteristic melodies.

The studio recording included here originates from the same source and venue as the only other studio recording in this collection, that of Il pirata, (CDs 5-6). Like that issue it also features the lyric coloratura Lucia Aliberti, in this case in the title role. There are other studio recordings in competition. Of these Joan Sutherland’s 1966 recording (Decca 433 706-2) has dominated the scene with rivals, except for Gruberova on her Nightingale label (NC070560-2), having only a transient life in the catalogue.

This recording was made shortly after a series of concert performances. Its particular strengths are in the vibrant and dramatic conducting of Fabio Luisi and the contribution of the chorus and orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin. Just as the premiere of the work in Venice in 1831 depended on Giuditta Pasta, performances of the title role are paramount. As Beatrice, Lucia Aliberti’s lyric coloratura lacks the fullness of tone of Sutherland or her virtuosity in florid passages. She does score over La Stupenda in slightly better diction but with the soloists set well behind the orchestras and chorus that is a marginal issue. Her characterisation is good in Beatrice’s act 1 cavatina with chorus, Respirio io qui (CD 1 trs. 10-14) as she laments herself as a broken flower, and likewise in her final prayer (CD 2 trs.26-27). As Agnese Camille Capasso’s high lyric mezzo is adequate but does not erase memories of Kasarova with Gruberova or Veasey with Sutherland.

Of the men, Martin Thompson as Orombello is no rival for the young Pavarotti for Italianate squilla, but he sings with clear open tone and good diction (CD 1 trs. 24-26). After something of a rough start the real solo vocal power in this performance comes with the singing and characterisation of Paolo Gavanelli in the rather vile character, as Bellini referred to him, of Filippo. There are moments when Gavanelli’s incisive clear diction and excellent portrayal of Filippo’s cruel and self-serving character reminds me of the young Tito Gobbi. That comparison might be gilding the lily a little too much, but Gavanelli’s portrayal is superior to recorded rivals and together with the orchestra, chorus and conductor is a great strength in this performance.

The issue of the delayed production of Beatrice di Tenda rumbled on in the local press in Venice after Bellini left the city, with much dirty linen being washed in public. Romani, still in Venice, defended his position in flowery prose and alluded to other distractions for Bellini. With their friendship and collaboration irretrievably damaged, Bellini travelled via Paris to London together with Pasta and her husband to present his operas. There he had been promised a considerable fee. Bellini’s operas sharply divided opinion in London although there was enthusiasm for Maria Malibran, with whom Bellini became infatuated, in La Sonnambula. While he was in London Giuditta’s marriage foundered, her husband learning of her relationship with Bellini, which he must have at least suspected before Romani’s flowery language and an anonymous letter caused his ego some damage and prompted his action to obtain a legal separation.

I Puritani - Melodramma in three parts (1835)
Gualtiero Walton, Puritan Governor General and Elvira’s father – Franco Federici (bass); Elvira, his daughter – Mariella Devia (soprano); Arturo, a Cavalier and supporter of the Stuarts in love with Elvira – William Matteuzzi (tenor); Riccardo, a Puritan officer who has been promised the hand of Elvira – Christopher Robertson (baritone); Giorgio, a retired Puritan colonel and elder brother of Lord Walton – Paolo Washington (bass); Enrichetta, widow of the executed Charles I – Eleonora Jankovic (soprano)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro Massimo Bellini of Catania/Richard Bonynge
rec. live, Catania, 24-30 September 1989
CDs 19 and 20 [72.33 + 77.49]

Despite the success of his operas in London, no new commissions were forthcoming there and Bellini returned 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 was forthcoming, 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 by critics. Bellini, his passion for Giuditta now much declined told her so, rather late in the day for her former marriage arrangements to survive, and left her bereft. A fact she shared in correspondence with Florimo Bellini’s lifelong friend since their days together at the Naples Conservatoire.

Having fallen out with his long-time librettist and friend 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. By using this story, composer and librettist also sought to exploit the European infatuation with Sir Walter Scott’s works and at one stage called 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 with Bellini seeking advice from Rossini as well as depending on what he had learned in his own theatrical experience and from working with Romani.

The action of I Puritani 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 Walton, has agreed to the marriage of his daughter Elvira to Lord Arturo Talbot, a Cavalier. This was after persuasion by her uncle Giorgio and despite the fact that he had originally promised her hand to Riccardo Forth, a captain in his Puritan army. Walton explains that he cannot attend the ceremony, as he is to take a prisoner to London to stand trial. The Cavalier Arturo recognises the prisoner as Enrichetta, widow of the executed King. To save her from certain death in London 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, is finally convinced and restored to reason. Cromwell, who has defeated all the Royalists, declares an amnesty that allows the marriage of Arturo and Elvira to go ahead.

The live performance of I Puritani in this collection is under the baton of Richard Bonynge. He is a considerable, and justifiably renowned expert in the bel canto repertoire and in which he conducted his wife, Joan Sutherland, and many other eminent singers, in the greatest opera houses of the world. His experience and feel for Bellini’s music, together with his phrasing and support of the singers is evident throughout this performance allowing it to stand alongside the best of the live recordings in this collection.

In addition to Bonynge’s strength as a conductor, is a vocally distinguished and well-balanced cast. Mariella Devia as Elvira is a particular strength from the outset, soaring in the act one trio with chorus A te cara (CD 18 tr.8) as Giorgio blesses the wedding of the Cavalier Arturo to the his niece Elvira, a Puritan. But like all Elviras she has two mad scenes to surmount (CD 18 trs 5-8 and in the final scene CD 19 trs.11-20). Her good diction, secure coloratura and trill, as well as vocal flights, are a pleasure on the ear as well as being excellent in characterisation in both these scenes and for which she is, justifiably, applauded. If William Matteuzzi as Arturo is not quite so vocally appealing, he can and does rise to Bellini’s considerable vocal demands with a secure open-toned high D in the duet Vieni, vieni fra queste braccia (CD 20 tr.17), as the deranged Elvira appeals for Arturo to come to her. His even and well-supported ascent to the high F from the head in the following Credeasa misera (tr19) as Arturo laments his impact on Elviras’s is equally welcome. His effort stands comparison with others on record and is better on the ear than Pavarotti’s pathetic attempt in Sutherland’s second recording of the opera, also conducted by Bonynge (Decca 417 588-2).

The veteran Paolo Washington sings a sympathetic Giorgio as he laments Elvira’s deranged state in Cinta di fiori (CD 20 tr.2). His voice, still firm, contrasts and also blends well with the strong, even and biting tones of the young Christopher Robertson as Riccardo This is particularly evident when Giorgio pleads with Riccardo to save his rival for Elvira’s hand, and thus her sanity, in the justly famous scene and duet Il rival salvar tu dei. The latter is notable for its long flowing typically elegiac Bellinian melodic line that so captivated Verdi and Wagner among others (CD 20 trs.8-10). There are occasional stage noises to go along with the enthusiastic audience applause in a good overall acoustic.

With a dream cast of Giulia Grisi as Elvira, Rubini in the high-lying tenor role of Arturo along with the famed baritone and bass 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. There he suffered a recurrence of the chronic gastric problems from which he had ailed for some time. Despite the attentions of Princess Belgoioso’s personal physician, Bellini died, alone, on 23 September 1835 at the height of his compositional powers and with the operatic world at his feet.

As with Mozart, we can but wonder what might have been had Bellini lived to a decent age. Instead we must be grateful for what we do have from perhaps the most individually gifted operatic composer from the era between the retirement of Rossini and the arrival of Verdi. This collection should also serve to introduce admirers of Bellini’s later and more renowned works, to the composer’s earlier works. These continue to languish largely and shamefully unperformed, except occasionally in his homeland, of Sicily.

Robert J Farr


 


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