11 Jan 2006

BELLINI: I Puritani

Through Rossini's influence Bellini and his rival Donizetti were each invited to compose an opera for the Théâtre des Italiens in Paris. Bellini who, paranoid and delusional, thought he was the object of a sinister plan headed by Rossini to benefit Donizetti, went out of his way to ingratiate himself with the "Great Master" long before Donizetti's arrival in the French capital. After a year of idle life in Paris, where he survived off the kindness of his hosts and friends, the Sicilian composer set to work on what would regretfully become his last opera: I Puritani di Scozia.

Count Carlo Pepoli, an Italian nationalist and expatriate living in Paris, wrote the libretto based on a play by François Ançelot and Xavier Saintine, Têtes rondes et Cavaliers.1 Though a popular poet and man of the theater, Pepoli was not accustomed to writing for the voice or dealing with the unique situations in opera, and these shortcomings became the source of tense moments between composer and poet. In Puritani, Pepoli's poetry far outshines the quality of the stage action which is, overall, less than cohesive, but in the end he was able to satisfy the demands of the composer. Adding to the less than brilliant libretto is the false notion that the protagonists come from Scotland, or that the action takes place somewhere other than Plymouth, England.2 It was Bellini who, taking advantage of the popularity of Jedediah Cleishbotham's3 novel Tales of Old Mortality, gave his opera the novel's Italian translated title, "I Puritani di Scozia."

After some stressful months for all involved, the composer was able to present his "humble" work to Rossini for his approval, and as had become Bellini's habit, with needless and excessive flattery towards the elder composer. Bellini requested from the "great master" that Rossini "cut, add or change it completely" at his will as this would greatly benefit Bellini's music. It is not known what Rossini's immediate reaction to the score was,4 or what changes if any the greater composer made. Rossini did however suggest breaking up the opera's two long acts into three,5 and he facilitated the availability of an on-stage organ at the theater for the opening scene of the opera.6

I Puritani premiered in Paris on January 24, 1835 with the great Giulia Grisi in the role of Elvira and Giovanni Battista Rubini as Arturo. The opera was a success with the composer and the singers being called back twice, and in Bellini's words, "The Frenchmen went out of their minds..." Rossini called it a "brilliant success," and the Parisian press agreed with the praise, but had reservations about the libretto, with one periodical calling Elvira's madness imbecile rather than raving.

In England the opera had the same success, though music critic Henry Chorley's opinion of Bellini's talent was less than favorable, "More trite and faded themes and phrases than many of his...can hardly be imagined....there is nothing more fatiguing and mawkish...than Bellini's abuse of appogiatura." In Puritani, Chorley continues, Bellini's plagiarism of Simon Mayr's "Donne l'Amore" is exemplified in Arturo's music in the last act.

No such negative reaction to this Hardy Classic Video from 1966, but for those unfamiliar with opera prior to the 1970s, this performance of Bellini's work may not be for them. There are no elaborate sets: instead the scenery is painted on simple back drops, with a few steps here and there, a doorway, or a piece of furniture to facilitate stage movement. There is no complicated lighting design. The acting is not what one would call worthy of awards; in fact, it is rather straightforward, simple and typical of its time. On the other hand, for those interested in wonderful singing this DVD goes a long way in contradicting the notion that there were no capable interpreters for these unique roles in the 60s.

We have no way of comparing Grisi's instrument, but American coloratura Gianna D'Angelo (1934) is well worth this 140 minute DVD. Born in Hartford, Connecticut, D'Angelo studied at Julliard and in Italy, making her operatic debut in Rome as Gilda in 1954. Though some of her later performances at the Metropolitan were not considered her best, D'Angelo was very popular in Europe where she sang roles as varied as Queen of the Night, Musetta, Amina, Gounod's Juliette, etc. Her voice is captured on CDs in Contes d'Hoffmann, Boheme,7 Don Pascuale, Barbiere di Siviglia, Lakme, and on video as well as in many private recordings.

D'Angelo's instrument is characterized by its bright timbre and clear coloratura. Her unquestionable technique and flawless breath control enables her to manage Elvira's vocal virtuosity as easily as the more sentimental phrases. As Joel Kasaw points out, D'Angelo "possessed the unique talent of being able to sing two notes simultaneously."

From the opening bars of "O amato zio" to the end of the opera, D'Angelo is in complete control of her instrument. There are no out of place histrionics, or affected notes in her singing. Her trills are delicate, and her effortlessly sustained high notes are always on pitch and without any distracting vibrato. In the ensemble following "A te, o cara" D'Angelo is sublime, blending well with the rest of the cast.

D'Angelo peppers the aria, "Son vergin vezzosa," with trills, roulades, and high notes throughout, and to the end of the ensemble her voice soars effortlessly over the orchestra. "Oh! Vieni al tempio, fedele Arturo" is filled with poignant pathos, and with enough metal in her voice to project her bitter emotions. In "Arturo! Tu ritorni?...Oh! Vieni al tempio, fedele Arturo," and to the end of the Act, D'Angelo closely follows the direction in the score, singing with delirious abandon and with the faith of an innocent heart, turning to desperate sorrow in "Ma tu già mi fuggi..."

In "Qui la voce sua soave...Vien diletto, è in ciel la luna..." D'Angelo's interpretation is without fault, as is the duet with Arturo "Vieni fra queste braccia." Throughout the opera D'Angelo's singing is effortless: she never has to search for her voice, the notes come as easily to her as breathing to mere mortals.

Luciano Saldari (1933-1996) is deserving of Lauri Volpi's praises as a great singer, and one of the last true Italian tenors from the old school. Born in Ascoli Piceno, Saldari studied with Antonio Malandri, making his professional debut in 1957 as the Duke in Rigoletto. As a winner of the "Orpheus" competition he was in the company of Anita Cerquetti, Franco Bonisolli, Ronaldo Panerai, Mariella Devia, Gabriella Tucci, Cesare Valetti, Ruggiero Raimondi, Ronaldo Panerai, Sonia Ganassi, Leo Nucci, and a long list of now famous singers. Saldari was also the winner of the AsLiCo prize in 1958, and again as with the Orpheus competition, Saldari is in excellent company.

Saldari, though afflicted by a heart condition early on, had an extensive career and he also recorded a number of operas. Unfortunately some may know him only from his less than perfect performance of Puritani where he replaced an indisposed Pavarotti.

In spite of a forced diction on the word "gioia" in "A te, o cara," Saldari has nothing to envy other interpreters of this role (except maybe some height): the timbre of his voice is sublime with enough masculinity to carry it off, and his high notes are solidly executed. "Al brillar di sì bell'ora" is worth playing again. Saldari imbues the words with emotion and his high notes are perfect. "Non parlar di lei che adoro," and "Sprezzo, audace, il tuo furore...," provide Saldari ample opportunity to show off his instrument. "Son salvo, al fin son salvo..." is filled with sentiment. Unfortunately "A una fonte afflitto e solo" is cut from "La mia canzon d'amor."

Saldari is secure in his delivery of "Corre a valle, corre a monte." The inflection in his voice injecting all the pathos and emotion needed to elevate this lyrical moment from mundane to sublime. In "Vieni fra queste braccia" Saldari is simply superb in his timing, and in his delivery of some very exciting high notes.

Sadly neglected by the major recording companies,8 bass Agostino Ferrin (1928) delivers a venerable performance as Sir Giorgio, Elvira's wiser and elder uncle. Ferrin's voice was not one to be called dark, or cavernous, but his singing was always dignified, and dramatically involved.

His scene with Elvira "Ascolta. Sorgea la notte folta" Ferrin is fatherly and sensitive without undue emphasis. In "Cinta di fiori e col bel crin..." Ferrin sings with credence and ends the ensemble with a long sustained chest note. Ferrin is in his element singing with Dondi in "Il rival salvar tu dêi..." to the end of the scene with the rousing "Suoni la tromba, e intrepido."

The only disappointment is Dino Dondi's performance as Riccardo. A popular and experienced baritone, Dondi's instrument has a pleasant timbre but in this performance he is rather monotone. His Riccardo comes off as a cardboard character rather than the passionate man that he is. In "Ah! Per sempre io ti perdei...Bel sogno beato," his singing is very studied, emotionless, and lacking "love and rage." Dondi warms up to redeem himself later in "Ferma! Invan rapir pretendi," and in "E di morte lo stral non sarà lento." Dondi is at his best in the duet with Giorgio, "Suoni la tromba..."

Mezzo Maja Singerle, who should have had a larger career, makes the best of her small role as Enrichetta di Francia. Singerle holds her own in the ensemble following "Son vergin vezzosa."

As Gualtiero Walton, Silvio Maionica, delivers a solid performance worthy of praise.

The rest of the cast, the chorus and orchestra provide excellent support.

Bellini died shortly after the premiere of I Puritani, not yet thirty four years of age. His death has of late come under investigation and there appears to be ample evidence to prove what has long been suspected: that Bellini was poisoned. There is nothing to indicate to what heights Bellini's music would have taken him, but it would please him to know that many consider I Puritani di Scozia his masterpiece. The opera has fared better in popularity than Beatrice di Tenda, Il Pirata, Capuleti e i Montecchi, La Sonnambula, and second only to Norma.

Daniel Pardo © 2006


Civil War and Charles I
Teatro A. Masini
Joel Kasaw
Stelios Galatopoulos, Bellini (London: Sanctuary Publishing Limited, 2002)
Herbert Weinstock, Vincenzo Bellini, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1971)
Henry F. Chorley, Thirty Years' Musical Recollections, Edited by Ernest Newman (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1926)


1The play Roundheads and Cavaliers premiered in Paris in 1833. Originally a derogatory term, coined around 1640 to denote the "round" or page boy haircut favored by many Puritans, the Roundheads supported Parliament and fought alongside Cromwell against the king's Royalists or Cavaliers, who wore their hair or wigs long and in curls like Charles I.

2Many members of the Puritan separatist religious movement sided with Parliament and against the Royalists during the English Civil War. Aside from that, there is no relationship between the title and the libretto as the action takes place in Plymouth, England. The only connections to Scotland is Mary Stuart, grandmother to the King, Charles I, and the Puritan revolt in Scotland against Charles' attempt to impose the English Book of Prayer on the Church of Scotland in 1637.

3Sir Walter Scott's nom de plume

4Later, Rossini would call it the "most accomplished" of Bellini's scores.3Sir Walter Scott's nom de plume

3Sir Walter Scott's nom de plume

5This suggestion may have stung Bellini. Originally Pepoli had submitted a three act libretto which Bellini had the poet re-write into two acts.

6Rossini may not have been aware or may not have cared to point out that Puritans did not approve of organ music in their places of worship.

7This 1959 recording of Boheme with Renata Tebaldi and Carlo Bergonzi was used in the movie Moonstruck.

8Agostino Ferrin did record the role of Giorgio for EMI with Montserrat Caballé, Alfredo Kraus, and Matteo Mannuguerra.