Bellini’s I puritani – a survey of the major recordings
by Ralph Moore

In truth, while other operas such as I Capuleti e I Montecchi and Il pirata have great merit, Bellini’s reputation rests primarily upon only three: the imperishable Norma, La sonnambula and I puritani – his last and most ambitious work, premiered in the same year as his lamentably early demise in 1835. It has very difficult but beautiful showpiece arias such as “Qui la voce” and “Son vergin vezzosa” – the latter written subsequently for Maria Malibran and inserted into the completed score – and arias with high tenor notes designed for Rubini, stretching up to D flat in “A te, o cara” and even an F in “Credeasi, misera!” (usually sung falsetto, of course). Another favourite is the duet for basses, “Suoni la tromba” which, as Rossini advised Bellini, makes a rousing conclusion to the second act. My favourite aria of all, however, is the baritone’s “Ah! per sempre” – its line and legato constituting an absolute benchmark for gauging whether a singer has the capacity to deliver bel canto properly.

As is so often the case with my surveys, my selection of recordings is biased towards those made unconscionably long ago; all fourteen reviewed here are pre-1990 except the last from 2017, which is included only because having already reviewed it, I thought it might as well feature, not because it is a prime recommendation.

There have been only five studio recordings, three of which were made in the 70s using the complete score; the last of those has a starry cast conducted by Muti in 1979. Several great sopranos such as Sutherland and Sills made I puritani a speciality and as a result left both studio versions and several recordings of live performances; in general, the former are, for obvious reasons, sonically superior but also usually artistically better, too, so I have chosen the best of those recordings rather than dutifully plough through all of them only to default to the most obviously recommendable. Furthermore, the so-called “traditional” cuts mar earlier recordings; I puritani might have some weaknesses in the libretto but it is a carefully crafted, neatly structured opera requiring Bellini’s wishes to be honoured and we need things such as Elvira’s concluding aria of joy and celebration – more solidly re-establishing the home key of D – to be kept in, especially as without it, the ending seems perfunctory and rushed.

Edita Gruberova also specialised in the role of Elvira and left at least eight live recordings, but hers was a voice I could never warm to, so please investigate those yourself if you are a fan. Nothing from the last forty or so years excites me, with the exception of Ferro’s excellent 1986 live recording, discussed in the penultimate review here, and although I tried hard to cast aside any prejudice before embarking on my (re-)listening, I was fairly sure that I would “end at my beginning” with what I was always virtually certain would be my top recommendation.

The recordings

Fernando Previtali – 1952, live radio broadcast, mono; Urania; Bongiovanni
Orchestra & Chorus – RAI Roma
Elvira – Lina Pagliughi (soprano)
Arturo Talbot – Mario Filippeschi (tenor)
Sir Riccardo Forth – Rolando Panerai (baritone)
Sir Giorgio – Sesto Bruscantini (baritone)
Enrichetta di Francia – Lucia Quinto (mezzo-soprano)  
Sir Bruno Robertson – Enzo Mori (tenor)
Lord Gualtiero Valton – Franco Calabrese (bass)

Lina Pagliughi’s pure, crystalline lyric-soprano endured throughout a fairly long career and she still sounds suitably girlish here in her mid-forties – even though she cut a stout figure on stage. She also sings most expressively – perhaps even rather over-emoting for some modern tastes, with slides, portamenti, and the occasional gulp and sigh. Some shrillness and unsteadiness obtrude, too, but she is clearly very much in command of both her voice and the role. She is agile and powerful in the coloratura, though I guess her piping sound will not be to all tastes.

Pagliughi’s co-singers are no also-rans either: Filippeschi’s steely, stentorian tenor is in the Lauri-Volpi school of vocal production; it was a remarkably flexible instrument and his top notes verge on the scarily impressive. As with Pagliughi, his hard, “straight” timbre will not please all and he can turn plaintive and lachrymose, but he is up to the demands of the very high tessitura of the role of Arturo. Panerai’s lean, distinctive baritone was a fixture on the Italian operatic scene for decades and just as he does the following year in the Callas recording, he makes an admirable job of his music; his fast vibrato, incisive tone and steady line are very appealing – in fact, I think he is marginally preferable here. Although Bruscantini was best known for buffo baritone roles, he was very versatile and here sings Giorgio, usually sung by a bass. Franco Calabrese was one of the best basses on the circuit and many collectors will recognise him from his recordings of Angelotti in the de Sabata/Callas Tosca and Almaviva in Gui’s Glyndebourne Le nozze di Figaro.

Previtali is a thoroughly reliable conductor. The sound is faintly murky mono, but perfectly listenable with a will. I do not personally respond to the two principal voices here, but hear much I can still admire.

Tullio Serafin – 1953, studio, mono; EMI/Warner; Pristine (ambient stereo)
Orchestra & Chorus – Teatro alla Scala
Elvira – Maria Callas (soprano)
Arturo Talbot – Giuseppe Di Stefano (tenor)
Sir Riccardo Forth – Rolando Panerai (baritone)
Sir Giorgio – Nicola Rossi-Lemeni (bass)
Enrichetta di Francia – Aurora Cattelani (mezzo-soprano) 
Sir Bruno Robertson – Angelo Mercuriali (tenor)
Lord Gualtiero Valton – Carlo Forti (bass)

(This is a slightly edited version of my original review)

This recording has already been extensively reviewed in various incarnations by my colleagues Roberts Farr (review) and McKechnie (review), so I do not propose to spend too much time revisiting its many merits and a few demerits, as 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’ 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 neatly 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, so it is disqualified from being a first choice and can be recommended only as a supplement – but what remains is stunning. 

Francesco Molinari-Pradelli – 1957, live, mono; House of Opera; Bongiovanni
Orchestra & Chorus – Teatro Verdi di Trieste
Elvira – Virginia Zeani (soprano)
Arturo Talbot – Mario Filippeschi (tenor)
Sir Riccardo Forth – Aldo Protti (baritone)
Sir Giorgio – Andrea Mongelli (bass)
Enrichetta di Francia – ? (information not provided)
Sir Bruno Robertson – Raimondo Botteghelli (tenor)
Lord Gualtiero Valton – Vito Susca (bass)

It’s a pity that the radio broadcast sound here is dim and distant; upper frequencies are missing and it is prone to airwave “beat” and interference – but there it is; we do not have so many recordings of the recently deceased (aged 97) Virginia Zeani that we can afford to be picky. In that regard, she is like Leyla Gencer (see below). She was a lovely, very versatile singer and she has the right voice for the role of Elvira: light, yet powerful, agile and flexible; nonetheless, I have to say the poor sound automatically reduces this to the status of “supplement”.

Regarding Mario Filippeschi, I refer you to my first review above, as it equally applies here. Protti was always utterly dependable without being very interesting or exciting and he brings little allure to the role of Riccardo. Molinari-Pradelli was similarly always reliable – and often much better – but the recessed sound doesn’t permit very detailed appreciation of the orchestra or his direction.

I will not belabour this review. The only reason for acquiring this is if you are a completist Zeani fan and are tolerant of very indifferent sound.

Mario Rossi – 1959, live radio broadcast, mono; Premiere Opera; House of Opera; GOP
Orchestra & Chorus – RAI Milano
Elvira – Anna Moffo (soprano)
Arturo Talbot – Gianni Raimondi (tenor)
Sir Riccardo Forth – Ugo Savarese (baritone)
Sir Giorgio – Raffaele Ariè (bass)
Enrichetta di Francia – Angela Rocco (mezzo-soprano) 
Sir Bruno Robertson – Mino Russo (tenor)
Lord Gualtiero Valton – Vito Susca (bass)

After encountering the disappointing sound quality of several live recordings from around this era, the clarity of this one, despite its age, comes as a relief. I don’t know why it is so good; someone had decent equipment and there is no distortion or interference. The first choral entrance is distanced but perfectly balanced and audible, and the orchestra emerges nicely, too. The chorus is top-notch and I really like Rossi’s conducting; it is alternately energised and relaxed by turns – but then, he was at the helm for a good many successful recordings for Cetra. He takes “Son vergin vezzosa” notably more slowly than most – and it works, allowing us to drink in the sensuous beauty of Anna Moffo’s singing and the subsequent lilting, tripping ensemble.

The main attraction here is indeed the young Moffo’s vibrant, distinctive Elvira; she floats her voice deliciously and there is always that special, slightly husky and – yes – sexy quality to her singing (although whether that is ideally appropriate to the depiction of the virginal Elvira, I am not so sure…). The leaps and ornamentations present no barrier to her; she has a trill and the stratospheric top notes. Her fast vibrato occasionally turns a little tremulous but that adds to her vulnerability. She sings “Qui la voce” with a tender, melting beauty – and considerable power at climactic points, including a secure and startling top E.

Regarding Gianni Raimondi as Arturo, I refer you to my assessment of his contribution in the review below of the performance conducted by Quadri in Buenos Aires, as it equally applies here. My problem with him is that Pavarotti has spoiled me for almost any other tenor in this role; I concede, however, that the excellent mono sound quality of this recorded broadcast leads me to a greater appreciation of his talents and he is here caught at his youthful best, despatching the treacherous top notes with aplomb (but avoiding the top F). Just occasionally, he sings slightly under the note, but that is a passing flaw. He is pretty impressive in his duets with Moffo. If only his essential tone were more grateful – it is to my ears rather plaintive – his would be an Arturo to set just beneath, if not alongside, Pavarotti’s.

Ugo Savarese’s baritone has a slightly “bottled” sound but he is a neat, expressive singer of the old school and I enjoy his performance here. Raffaele Ariè’s bass was always too light and baritonal for my taste but he sings sensitively and musically. Anglea Rocco is a smoky, husky-voiced Enrichetta, more like a contralto and strongly contrasted with Moffo; Vito Susca was a reliable bass regular.

Hard copies of this are harder to obtain but downloads are available and it is on YouTube. As I never tire of observing, every survey I do brings its surprises; this is it.

Vittorio Gui – 1960, live, mono; Glyndebourne; Opera Live
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Glyndebourne Festival Chorus
Elvira – Joan Sutherland (soprano)
Arturo Talbot – Nicola Filacuridi (tenor)
Sir Riccardo Forth – Ernest Blanc (baritone)
Sir Giorgio – Giuseppe Modesti (bass)
Enrichetta di Francia – Monica Sinclair (mezzo-soprano)   
Sir Bruno Robertson – John Kentish (tenor)
Lord Gualtiero Valton – David Ward (bass)

Obviously the main attraction here is the young Joan Sutherland in her debut as Elvira, caught at her freshest just as she was becoming an international star, in the first performance in Britain of I puritani since 1887. Everything she does is remarkable, not just vocally but emotionally – and even her diction is unexceptionable. Furthermore, the live, mono sound is really excellent: full, clear and blemish-free – the best by far of all the live mono recordings reviewed here. The veteran Gui conducts authoritatively, if rather sedately, but that’s not really an issue.

The first solo voice we hear is a weak Bruno singing in poor Italian, which is a minor setback and it soon becomes clear that Sutherland is very much the star, as none of the other cast is quite up to her standard – but they are still very good and it is quite untrue that, as the BBC Music magazine asserts in its review of this Glyndebourne issue, her co-singers are “names that are largely unfamiliar to us today”. Stylish, husky-voiced baritone Ernest Blanc had a major career, singing in major opera houses in the US and Europe, including Bayreuth; Giuseppe Modesti was a La Scala regular for decades and made recordings with Callas; trenchant contralto Monica Sinclair and smooth Scottish bass David Ward were Covent Garden stalwarts. The weakest link here and probably the least remembered today – although he had a successful career – is Nicola Filacuridi, who has a neat, slightly tight and penetrating tenor. I have read a couple of quite disparaging reviews of his singing here, and while it is true that he is no Pavarotti, I at first find his singing quite pleasant if a bit bloodless  – until he skimps his first top note and starts to bleat; he also sounds very small alongside Sutherland.

Given that Sutherland went on to make two studio recordings, one of which must be a top recommendation, there is no special compulsion to acquire this set, too, unless you especially want to hear her at her most youthful in a historically important revival.

Argeo Quadri – 1961, live, mono; Living Stage; Myto
Orchestra& Chorus  – Teatro Colón (Buenos Aires)
Elvira – Leyla Gencer (soprano)
Arturo Talbot – Gianni Raimondi (tenor)
Sir Riccardo Forth – Manuel Ausensi (baritone)
Sir Giorgio – Ferruccio Mazzoli (bass)
Enrichetta di Francia – Luisa Bartoletti (mezzo-soprano) 
Sir Bruno Robertson – Umberto di Toto (tenor)
Lord Gualtiero Valton – Mario Verazzi (bass)

Leyla Gencer had something of Callas’ quality in that she was an intense and very versatile communicator with an instantly recognisable voice which was compelling without being exactly beautiful and displayed a number of little mannerisms, such as a glottal catch. Some are irritated by the vibrancy of her vibrato but I love her distinctive sound. Besides, she was unaccountably ignored by the recording companies and thus left virtually nothing commercial, so she became known as the “Queen of the Pirates” and we, her admirers, must content ourselves with live souvenirs such as this. However, she sounds a bit tentative and wobbly in Elvira’s first scene with Giorgio; she is not on form and her concluding top D is ill-advised. She then warms up for the coloratura pyrotechnics of “Son vergin vezzosa” and is much better from then on. I could wish, however, that she did not sometimes adopt a winsome, “little girl” affect, draining her voice too much of body.

Gianni Raimondi was doomed to be the best of a slew of very good but still second-rate tenors in an age blessed in that vocal category. His singing is pleasant enough and he has the top notes but his tone can turn constricted and has none of the magical quality brought to the music by the young Pavarotti. Having said that, he obviously pleases the audience and copes admirably with “Credeasi, misera!”. Manuel Ausensi has a firm, capable, not especially subtle baritone; he can sustain a line and displays an even, dark, resonant tone without bringing much variety to his delivery; I like him but would hardly claim that he is among the best exponents of the role of Riccardo. Ferruccio Mazzoli is a fine, reliable bass of the kind which seemed to be abundant in the 60s.

This is a live performance so there are some clumping stage noises, the occasional cough and an audible prompter – nothing too distracting. The mono sound here is a little hissy but not cramped or distorted –  quite acceptable. The orchestra is likewise not the best – intonation can sometimes be iffy, especially among the woodwind – but it is perfectly competent and Quadri directs a dignified, well-paced account, perhaps slightly lacking in excitement but unexceptionable. The chorus is especially good and lusty.

Ultimately, unless you are die-hard Gencer fan, there is nothing here – especially as she is not consistently at her best – which would compel you to acquire this over several other mono versions – not least the Callas version, especially in its remastered “Ambient Stereo” form from Pristine.

Richard Bonynge – 1963, studio, stereo; Decca
Orchestra & Chorus – Maggio Musicale Fiorentino
Elvira – Joan Sutherland (soprano)
Arturo Talbot – Pierre Duval (tenor)
Sir Riccardo Forth – Renato Capecchi (baritone)
Sir Giorgio – Ezio Flagello (bass)
Enrichetta di Francia – Margreta Elkins (mezzo-soprano)   
Sir Bruno Robertson – Piero De Palma (tenor)
Lord Gualtiero Valton – Giovanni Foiani (bass)

Apart from the obvious advantage of hearing a youthful Sutherland here in stunning form, there is much else to enjoy in this recording: Renato Capecchi’s Riccardo is rather dark, robust and even coarse-toned, but his phrasing is still graceful and flexible; we also have a fine supporting cast including two first-class basses, the ubiquitous Piero De Palma as Bruno and a strong-voiced Enrichetta in Margreta Elkins. The problems are twofold and crucial: a lead tenor whose singing is laboured, gusty and poorly tuned, markedly inferior to his successors in the studio (Pavarotti in the second Bonynge recording and Kraus, for Muti) and Bonynge’s rather limp, inert conducting. Half the time, Duval sounds to me as if he is almost yelling and if it is true that he was a replacement when Franco Corelli withdrew from the project, all I can say is that I would sooner have heard Corelli’s beautiful tone, even if he, too, could sometimes resort to “can belto”. As an isolated phenomenon, Duval top D is, I suppose, impressive, but it is not part of an integrated or attractive voice and that alone rules out this recording. It is also true, however, that while there is no doubting the brilliance of Sutherland’s vocalisation – and the rare cabaletta for Elvira at the end is included – she is nowhere near as emotionally involved or incisive with the text as a decade later, even if something of an incipient beat occasionally  creeps into her voice in slower passages in that later recording.

Riccardo Muti – 1969, live radio broadcast, mono; Opera d’Oro
Orchestra & Chorus – RAI Roma
Elvira – Mirella Freni (soprano)
Arturo Talbot – Luciano Pavarotti (tenor)
Sir Riccardo Forth – Sesto Bruscantini (baritone)
Sir Giorgio – Bonaldo Giaiotti (bass)
Enrichetta di Francia – Mirella Fiorentini (mezzo-soprano) 
Sir Bruno Robertson – Mino Venturini (tenor)
Lord Gualtiero Valton – Giovanni Antonini (bass)

This radio broadcast without audience has many of the merits of Muti’s studio recording a decade later and if we did not have Pavarotti in the studio version below conducted by Bonynge, it would be treasurable for his performance alone. Muti is, if anything, broader and more affectionate in his conducting here and I like the extra space he gives Bellini’s wonderful melodies. He cuts only about twenty minutes of the score.

I am also a great fan of Bonaldo Giaiotti, whose big, black yet flexible voice effortlessly fills out those lovely melodic lines; I think him the most under-rated bass I know. Sesto Bruscantini, was always a stylistic paragon – and here he sounds especially graceful yet also darker-voiced than usual. His opening aria is as well sung as in any other recording, delivered with smooth, grave authority and the requisite underlying melancholy of a disappointed lover. The minor roles are fine: Mino Venturini is a pleasant Bruno, Giovanni Antonini a sonorous Valton and Mirella Fiorentini a competent Enrichetta – all three singers unknown to me. Finally, devotees of Mirella Freni will enjoy hearing her in lighter, more youthful voice before she moved into spinto roles. For all that I love Freni, she might not be thought a natural vocal fit for the role of Elvira, not being a true coloratura soprano – her top Ds are there but she is hard-pressed –  but she is delicate and touching, reaching the emotional heart of the character. So far so good but there are minor drawbacks: Pavarotti is mostly in simply glorious voice but falters occasionally, this being live – his first top D flat, for example, is sustained but stutters – the orchestra is adequate but hardly sumptuous – blips sometimes spoil those majestic horn calls – and the sound, while perfectly acceptable, is inferior to studio accounts, being mono and somewhat congested in ensemble. The final duet is transposed down a semitone and Pavarotti does not attempt the high F, even in falsetto as per the second Bonynge recording – but that doesn’t really matter. Fans of Freni, Pavarotti and the other fine singers here will want this, if only as a supplement to a recording of the full score.

Richard Bonynge – 1973, studio, stereo; Decca
London Symphony Orchestra
Covent Garden Chorus
Elvira – Joan Sutherland (soprano)
Arturo Talbot – Luciano Pavarotti (tenor)
Sir Riccardo Forth – Piero Cappuccilli (baritone)
Sir Giorgio – Nicolai Ghiaurov (bass)
Enrichetta di Francia – Anita Caminada (mezzo-soprano) 
Sir Bruno Robertson – Renato Cazzaniga (tenor)  
Lord Gualtiero Valton – Gian Carlo Luccardi (bass)

This was of course one of a clutch of bel canto studio recordings made by the team of Sutherland and Pavarotti for Decca in the late 60s and 70s, many of which endure to this day as top recommendations: Lucia di Lammermoor,  La fille du regiment,  Beatrice di Tenda, L’elisir d’amore, et al. It has a dream cast and the excellence of both the orchestral playing and Decca’s analogue sound is immediately apparent; it is hard to believe that this is fifty years old as I write. It is preferable in several respects to Sutherland’s and Bonynge’s first recording, not least in terms of sound but also with regard to both singing and conducting.

There are no iffy horns, no uncertain entries or questionable intonation in the instrumental contribution and Bonynge’s conducting is much more energised than in his earlier recording yet still relaxed and accommodating to his star cast of singers. Cappuccilli is not my favourite baritone in this opera – that honour belongs to Manuguerra,  Bruscantini and, above all, Massard (sadly, in a poorly recorded set) but his long-breathed eloquence is always welcome, even if he is not as refined as they. Ghiaurov’s magnificent, rolling bass is almost overkill in the role of Giorgio but what a sound he makes. Gian Carlo Luccardi is a superb Valton – a rather thankless role at best.

Pavarotti is even better than in his live radio broadcast with Freni four years earlier; his entrance with “A te o cara” is simply breathtaking and when Sutherland joins him we are in bel canto heaven. Their singing is essentially flawless, especially Sutherland’s pearlescent roulades, trills and pinged top notes up to E flat, always dead in tune. Her ornamentations in “Son vergin vezzosa” are remarkable without being distracting; no other sopranos, for all their gifts, approach her for virtuosity, even when she is typically a little “droopy”; Matching her, Pavarotti sails up to a stunning top D in “Vieni, vieni fra queste braccia” and injects great passion into his phrasing; then they both nail first the top D and concluding top C in unison – thrilling. The tenor’s infamous top F in “Credeasi, misera!” is despatched in a sweet falsetto – perfectly legitimate and effective and Sutherland is given Elvira’s outburst of joy to make a proper conclusion.

While not being superior in absolutely every respect, this is, on balance, the best recording of all.

Julius Rudel – 1973, studio, stereo; Westminster
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Ambrosian Opera Chorus
Elvira – Beverly Sills (soprano)
Arturo Talbot – Nicolai Gedda (tenor)
Sir Riccardo Forth – Louis Quilico (baritone)
Sir Giorgio – Paul Plishka (bass)
Enrichetta di Francia – Heather Begg (mezzo-soprano) 
Sir Bruno Robertson – Ricardo Cassinelli (tenor)
Lord Gualtiero Valton – Richard Van Allan (bass)

This is a tense, dramatic performance, in beautiful analogue sound and it offers the complete score.  Every time I read reviews of any of Sills’ recordings post-1970, I will find one telling me that it was “recorded too late in her career” yet I rarely hear that; what I think is meant by that, is that the reviewer does not like her tone which was admittedly smaller and thinner than other sopranos who undertook the role – but she was such a great musician, so agile and expressive, with thrilling top notes and her voice is always suffused with emotion. The edgy quality of her soprano is perhaps an acquired taste but many have done so and she has legion fans.

For me, a greater problem here by far is what I inevitably hear as the throaty, constricted timbre of Gedda’s tenor; to me, he frequently sounds inelegant and strained, with too much of a beat and a bleat in his vibrato and a persistently squeezed quality – make comparison at any point with Pavarotti’s bright, open sound to hear my point. Weirdly, his top notes are often more impressive than the middle of his voice. Plishka also sometimes sounds “ingolato” and “fruffly”, as he often could, but that fades in and out and at other times he is grand; “Cinta di Fiori” is imposing. Quilico is very similarly voiced. The three supporting cast members are fine but that is hardly is crucial.

In the end, I cannot endure Gedda when I can have Pavarotti, Merritt or even Kraus at his best and that lack of vocal distinction in his Arturo disqualifies this set for me.

Gianfranco Rivoli – 1974, live, mono; House of Opera; Premiere; Opera Depot
Orchestra & Chorus – L’Opéra de Marseille
Elvira – Christiane Eda-Pierre (soprano)
Arturo Talbot – Alfredo Kraus (tenor)
Sir Riccardo Forth – Robert Massard (baritone)
Sir Giorgio  – Pierre Thau (bass)
Enrichetta di Francia – Martine Dupuy (mezzo-soprano) 
Sir Bruno Robertson – Philippe Bénanzal (tenor)  
Lord Gualtiero Valton – Lucien Cattin (bass)

It is a pity that a recording made as late as 1974 should be in remote mono but obviously we have no choice other than to listen through the poor sound and seek out its virtues. Nonetheless, it was clearly made by an audience members and extraneous noises can be more immediate than what is going on on-stage – except, of course, it does not help that at first the singing takes place off-stage, intensifying that sense of separation and we hear nearby coughing much more clearly. After the distant choral ensemble and quartet, the aural perspective improves somewhat and it is a treat to hear Massard sings my favourite Bellini baritone aria “Ah! per sempre” so smoothly and expressively, ending on a splendid A flat. His singing throughout is free, open and impeccably tuned.

The fact that the cast here is distinguished makes the poor sound all the more regrettable. What sounds like a change of tape machine for track 5, CD 1, which brings greater depth but more rumble and no improvement in immediacy, emphasises a weakness in the singing of Christiane Eda-Pierre’s soprano: she tends to occasional flatness; otherwise set pieces such as “Son vergin vezzosa” are richly and agilely sung.

Arturo was one of Alfredo Kraus’s favourite roles. I am not personally a great admirer of what I hear as his rather squeezed timbre but I know others enjoy it more than I and if his voice appeals you will hear him on good form, with a secure top D in “A te, o cara”.

As with the previous recording, its sonic limitations reduce its appeal but once again, Massard’s contribution in particular is sterling and it is a good record of the best of Kraus. The audience applauds vociferously, confirming that it must have been a great experience to have been in the auditorium that evening.

Riccardo Muti – 1979, studio, stereo; EMI/Warner
Philharmonia Orchestra
Ambrosian Opera Chorus
Elvira – Montserrat Caballé (soprano)
Arturo Talbot – Alfredo Kraus (tenor)
Sir Riccardo Forth – Matteo Manuguerra (baritone)
Sir Giorgio – Agostino Ferrin (mezzo-soprano) 
Enrichetta di Francia – Júlia Hamari (mezzo-soprano) 
Sir Bruno Robertson – Dennis O’Neill (tenor)  
Lord Gualtiero Valton – Stefan Elenkov (mezzo-soprano) 

The lovely playing of the overture by the Philharmonia Orchestra – especially the mellow horns – and the excellent singing by the Ambrosians of the first martial chorus set the tone for this recording, made in first-rate analogue sound. The direction and execution here are nimble, sensitive  – and faithful to the original score, in typical Muti fashion. Muti is a great opera conductor, except when he turns pedantic, but this is a flawless piece of direction. I well remember the first time I heard the distanced quartet “La luna, il sol, le stelle” played on Radio 3 on the release of the set; magical singing which prompted me to acquire it. The first solo voice we hear is the late and ever-under-rated Matteo Manuguerra, one of the most elegant baritones of his era; his singing of my favourite aria “Ah! per sempre” is  an absolute joy.

Agostino Ferrin does not have the juiciest of bass voices but sings feelingly and musically; Stefan Elenkov is richer-toned. Caballé inevitably sometimes sounds a little matronly for the virginal Elvira and her voice can spread under pressure but her “Son vergin vezzosa” is enchanting and she is in full command of the intricate divisions, as well as floating some of her famous pianissimi. “Ah, vieni al tempio” and “Ah rendetemi la speme” are both simply beautiful. As ever, I find Kraus’ reedy, nasal tone less ingratiating than Pavarotti’s more open sound but he is a very refined singer and has the top notes (“just” D flats, no top F). Julia Hamari makes a strong Enrichetta.

This really is a very satisfying account.

Gabriele Ferro – 1986; live, digital; Fonit Cetra; Warner Fonit; Opera Passion
NB: the “Mailbran version”
Orchestra sinfonica Siciliana
Coro E.A. Teatro Petruzzelli
Elvira – Katia Ricciarelli (soprano)
Arturo Talbot – Chris Merritt (tenor)
Sir Riccardo Forth – Juan Luque Carmona (tenor)
Sir Giorgio – Roberto Scandiuzzi (bass)
Enrichetta di Francia – Eleonora Jankovic (mezzo-soprano) 
Sir Bruno Robertson – Carlo Gaifa (tenor)
Lord Gualtiero Valton – Ambrogio Riva (bass)

Katia Ricciarelli here sings the version Bellini wrote especially for Maria Malibran, who never got to sing it, as she died exactly a year to the day after the composer. Elvira’s music is transposed into the mezzo range and she leads the “Credeasi, misera!” ensemble while Riccardo becomes a tenor – in this case,  Juan Luque Carmona, who has a clean, agile, rather piercing voice which becomes slightly wearing on the ear and hearing Riccardo’s music in the tenor register is decidedly weird, obviously robbing the music of some variety – but both main tenors are fine singers, so let that go.  Indeed, all the other principal singers are in excellent form; bass Roberto Scandiuzzi in particular is sonorous and heard here before his voice became frayed and woolly. Ricciarelli, not being a mezzo, still copes well with the lower line, although her voice is beginning to flap and pulse a little on loud, high notes; otherwise she is tender and expressive. Chris Merritt is quite hard-toned but sings superbly and tirelessly, with both heft and tenderness, sailing effortlessly up to his high D flats. His aria “A una fonte” at the beginning of Act III is wonderfully sung. Eleonora Jankovic is a firm, attractive, rich-voiced Enrichetta. The trio for Arturo, Enrichetta and Giorgio at the end of the Act I is really lovely and belongs only to this edition, making this particularly desirable. The diction of all the singers is especially clear and Ferro’s direction is both spirited and careful of the cantilena line. The chorus is lively and sound involved, the orchestra far from flawless but more than adequate.

Excellent, detailed liner notes in Italian and English are provided but the libretto is in Italian only.

As ever, these surveys reveal  surprises – this was the second one.

(You may watch the video on YouTube and download the audio file on Internet Archive.)

Constantine Orbelian – 2017, live composite, digital; Delos
Kaunas State Choir & Symphony Orchestra
Elvira – Sarah Coburn (soprano)
Arturo Talbot – Lawrence Brownlee (tenor) 
Sir Riccardo Forth – Azamat Zheltyrguzov (baritone)
Sir Giorgio – Tadas Girininkas (bass)  
Enrichetta di Francia – Jovita Vaškevičūtė (mezzo-soprano)
Sir Bruno Robertson – Tomas Pavilionis (tenor)
Lord Gualtiero Valton – Liudas Norvaišas (bass)

(I reproduce here an edited version of my original review)

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. A number of baritones have sung “Ah! per sempre” 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.

To a large degree, your choice of recording will depend upon the diva you favour; I must have Callas despite all the cuts but for a recording of the fuller score, either Muti with Caballé or Bonynge with Sutherland must be preferred. My colleague Göran Forsling reviewed Muti’s recording approvingly and favours that release above all; reacquaintance with it inclines me to agree with him, but ultimately I go with MusicWeb reviewer Bob Farr, in finding Bonynge’s second version to be the first choice (although Bob heartily disliked the Muti version – review – which is where we disagree). Both are superb. Cut, live, mono recordings have their place as supplements and I still want the Malibran version, more for Chris Merritt’s Arturo even than Ricciarelli’s nonetheless excellent Elvira, but the full score of the original version – or at least, near enough – in good sound must be the priority, so my recommendations are as follows:

Studio mono: Serafin 1953 (Pristine)
Live mono: Muti 1969/Rossi 1959
Studio stereo: Bonynge 1973*/Muti 1979
Live digital (Malibran version): Ferro 1986

*Top recommendation

Ralph Moore