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Recordings

Vincenzo Bellini: I Puritani
02 Feb 2011

I Puritani, Glyndebourne 1960

It’s a joy to watch an athlete finding her legs, especially when you know she’ll achieve her feat superbly, matchlessly, with supreme grace. I first heard Sutherland sing I Puritani (three times) during the famous Met run of 1976.

Vincenzo Bellini: I Puritani

Elvira: Joan Sutherland; Queen: Monica Sinclair; Arturo: Nicola Filiacuridi; Riccardo: John Kentish; Giorgio: Giuseppe Modesti. Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vittorio Gui. Glyndebourne Festival, 5 June, 1960.

Glyndebourne Festival Opera 9-60 [3CDs]

$29.99  Click to buy

By that time she knew where each note should be placed and how to make it land there, how to prepare, how to hold back, when to launch, what would make her tired, what she could get away with. Even so, on the first night of the run, she was visibly exhausted at the final curtain, grateful for our ovations but more grateful that it was over. By the final performance she was in clover, dancing on the stage (after the repeat of the cabaletta, too!), extracting individual roses from the bouquet she’d caught to bestow one on Pavarotti, another on Bonynge. Then, laughing, she tossed a few our way and blew us kisses. Of course, by then, I knew her first commercial recording of the opera, the one from 1963 with Pierre Duval shrilling those wild falsetto E’s to try to match her in the duet.

But the recording at hand, from Glyndebourne in 1960, is her first essay at the role. Although Nicola Filiacuridi is by no means disgraceful as Arturo (he simply omits the highest phrases, allowing Sutherland to take them alone) and John Kentish sings “Ah! per sempre io ti perdei” with enviable velvet, purchasers of this set will be Sutherland fans eager to hear her first attempt on the part. They won’t be disappointed, but this won’t be the Elvira they remember.

There is the omission of the final cabaletta, “Ah! sento al mio bell’angelo” for one thing. The number was a Bellini afterthought in any case, and Muti and other “prima la littera” conductors have preferred to do without it. The finale may sound strange to those familiar with the Bonynge version, for there is not a peep from the soprano through the entire concluding rejoicing.

But that’s not significant. What is fascinating is that, throughout the performance, Sutherland is not sure of herself when she goes for the E-flats and D’s. A friend of mine used to scoff at those of us who only heard her in the seventies and eighties: “The chances she used to take! She was fearless!” He referred particularly to a Puritani he had heard her sing with the American Opera Society. That may be the most exciting pirate Puritani to have; I don’t know if it’s even available.

Glyndebourne was not her first exposure to the music, at least of the Act II Mad Scene. She had studied that in her first days of working with Bonynge, her first approaches to bel canto; famously she sang it as part of her audition for Covent Garden—to the management’s bewilderment. They thought they were getting a dramatic soprano, which had been her stated objective hitherto; they had no experience of a dramatic coloratura. Aside from Callas, who had performed Puritani with Serafin in Venice a few years earlier but was unknown in London, no one had. The revival and renewal of this repertory seemed a very long shot to anyone in the business. They had no idea what to make of Sutherland, and they made very little for several years.

Sutherland’s first Bellini role was, notoriously, Clotilda to Callas’s first Norma at Covent Garden. Glyndebourne, where she had earlier sung Donna Anna, the Countess and Madame Hertz in Der Schauspieldirektor, was her first crack at any Bellini lead. She is strong here in the angry music of her duet in scene 2 and her voice has the heavier quality, what I call the “golden” voice, that would become most familiar to the world by the end of the decade. The “silver” voice appears with “Son vergin vezzosa” in scene 3, and it is here that she seems tentative, as if she could not as yet believe that it was easy to sing this music. It wasn’t easy for anybody else, after all. She does not seem certain when she glides to the top of a run that the proper note will come out, and she is therefore audibly nervous about putting full weight on it. There is a flutter where we are used (in Sutherland Elviras) to certainty. But this is not inappropriate to the airy, fantastical nature of Elvira Walton in these early scenes.

Where Sutherland comes into her own is the often ignored first Mad Scene, the one at the conclusion of Act I, beginning with “Oh! vieni al tempio.” This is as exquisite a piece of simple singing as she ever did, caressing the line, breathing it, without overdoing the melodrama of the situation. (The choral comment takes care of that.) Too, admirers will treasure the different qualities she brings to Elvira’s changes of mood in Act II—and regret Maestro Gui’s decision to cut repeats and what would no doubt have been extraordinary bursts of ornament. The very highest points of the Act III duet are marked by a certain effort to scoop up to the note that will be faulted by purists, and this tendency, alas, would become the rule in her last decade of singing. By the time she sang Puritani at the Met for the last time, late in 1986, her performance was somewhat painful to those who remembered her great days. She still sang much of it beautifully (and had the sense to lower the line here and there), but the lazy pitch and rhythm were considerably more marked. She was no longer herself, and she no longer seemed to be enjoying herself singing it.

It is fascinating, as well as a vocal delight, to have this document of her first essay. Dare one hope that her Mozart essays also linger somewhere in the Glyndebourne archives?

John Yohalem

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