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Vincenzo BELLINI (1801- 1835)
I puritani (1835)
Montserrat Caballé (soprano) - Elvira; Alfredo Kraus (tenor) - Arturo; Matteo Manuguerra (baritone) - Riccardo; Julia Hamari (mezzo) - Enrichetta; Agostino Ferrin (bass) - Giorgio; Stefan Elenkov (bass) - Gualtiero; Dennis O´Neill (tenor) - Bruno
Ambrosian Opera Chorus; Philharmonia Orchestra/Riccardo Muti
rec. 18, 21-24, 29-30 June, 1, 4 July 1979, Kingsway Hall, London
EMI CLASSICS 7397692 [3 CDs: 39:05 + 62:43 + 70:31]

When Bellini went to Paris after the not very successful Beatrice di Tenda he had the good fortune to meet and become friendly with Rossini. The older master, who had by then retired from writing operas, was familiar with Bellini’s music and also knew the different taste of the Parisians. He was able to give Bellini some advice and also managed to convince Théâtre Italien to produce his protegé’s new opera, which also turned out to be his last - Bellini died in the autumn of 1835, aged only 34. It is tempting to speculate what could have become of his future career, considering that I puritani partly points in new directions with longer scenes and more advanced orchestral writing. In the main, though, his characteristics are unchanged: long, heavenly melodies, more sentiment than real drama. It is the melodies that carry his operas - also in his last offering - and they require beautiful voices, technically accomplished singers of a calibre that is hard to find.
Under the then young Riccardo Muti - he was only 38 - EMI managed to put together some truly excellent singers for these recording sessions in Kingsway Hall during a couple of weeks in June and July 1979. Muti was always a conductor who was willing to go in clinch with established traditional readings and wipe away cobwebs from the scores, removing unwritten high notes - the high C in Di quella pira is a notorious example that was met with booing at La Scala. He has always also had a fine ear for orchestral sonorities and it is a pleasure to listen to the overture here with its brassy sounds loosened up with airy flutes. The flutes are also employed for similar purposes further on in the opera, for example to vitalise the jubilant chorus A festa! (CD 1 tr. 4). This also reminds us that Bellini composed not only languishing cantilenas but, in this opera especially, rhythmic and occasionally powerfully dramatic music. The first act finale is one such occasion; the act III finale another. Muti’s care over detail throughout makes the music come to life, more so than in the more than 25 years older recording under Tullio Serafin. Muti has the advantage of better recording and stereo sound, but that’s not the only difference. The Philharmonia Orchestra was an excellent body in the 1970s is another factor - Muti had been a regular conductor there since 1972 and in 1974 became principal conductor after Otto Klemperer. The Ambrosian Opera Chorus were also regulars on Muti’s recordings for many years and they are truly impressive in the opening chorus, with rhythmically alert singing.
So far so good, then. What about the soloists? The first character we hear is Bruno, who has quite a lot to sing in the first act. This is such a well modulated and classy voice that we at once look in the cast list and find that it is Dennis O´Neill, no less, before he ascended to a starry international career. His has always been a typically Italianate voice and here he is at his freshest. Riccardo is a grateful role for a lyric baritone with florid capacity. Matteo Manuguerra may not be the technically most accomplished singer but he has a healthy open sound, agreeable timbre and a wide, unforced range. His aria Ah! per sempre io ti perdei (CD 1 tr. 6) is an excellent calling card. He is even better in the long scene in act II with Giorgio (CD 3 tr. 4-7), crowned by a fluent and not in the least pompous Suoni la tromba. A late starter, Manuguerra was already in his mid-50s when this recording was made, but he was obviously in his life’s best form during these years; according to Wikipedia he took part in no fewer than seven complete opera recordings in 1979 alone.
His bass colleague Agostino Ferrin was no youngster either, having passed 50 at the time. His is a leaner and lighter voice than the traditional Italian bass. Sometimes his tone spreads under pressure, but Cinta di fiori in act II (CD 2 tr. 13) is bel canto singing at its best, and the scene with Manuguerra, just mentioned, is really wonderful. Julia Hamari is a good Enrichetta in duet with Alfredo Kraus (CD 2 tr. 4). Kraus himself is in terrific form. A te, o cara (CD 2 tr. 2) finds him in his element, his lean, reedy tone enabling graceful singing and fearless top notes. We should remember that he was also over 50 and had been singing professionally for 23 years but he had always chosen his roles carefully and never overtaxed his voice, so there are really no signs of strain, even though some recordings from twenty years earlier had him in even sappier voice. The first half-hour of Act III (CD 3 tr. 8-14) exposes him and Montserrat Caballé in a marvellous chain of delicious melodies, superbly performed. Vieni fra queste braccia (CD 3 tr. 14) is possibly the pick of the crop. Wait: in the finale Credeasi, misera (CD 3 tr. 17) is even more enticing.
Montserrat Caballé had been under fire from the beginning of the opera. In Act I scene 2 she is in riveting form: strong, confident and technically accomplished. Then in scene 3 she reaches Heaven in Son vergin vezzosa (CD 2 tr. 5). It is in act II that she has her greatest moments: O rendetemi la speme ... Qui la voce (CD 3 tr. 1). I have for ages admired Joan Sutherland’s recording of the aria on the legendary “The Art of the Prima Donna”, and it is probably the unbeatable version vocally. However, Caballé’s warmth and inwardness goes above anything else. She is heartrending also in the scene that follows and Muti allows her to expand the phrases magically.
Callas’s reading of Elvira’s role is deeply penetrating but for beauty of tone and grace Caballé wins hands down and neither Di Stefano nor Panerai is a match for Kraus and Manuguerra. The second Sutherland recording has its advocates and with Pavarotti, Cappuccilli and Ghiaurov this reads like a dream cast. To my taste the artillery is too heavy and Muti is the better conductor.
The only fly in the ointment is the lack of libretto - there is not even a synopsis. There is no mention anywhere of where to find one online. A libretto, but only in Italian, is available here or here. In spite of this Muti’s recording is the one to have.
Göran Forsling