Coburn & Brownlee Star in “I Puritani”


what a performanceBELLINI: I Puritani / Sarah Coburn, sop (Elvira); Lawrence Brownlee, ten (Arturo); Azamat Zheltyrguzov, bar (Riccardo); Tadas Girininkas, bs (Giorgio); Liudas Norvaišas, bs (Gualtiero); Tomas Pavilionis, ten (Bruno); Jovita Vaškevičūtė, mezzo (Enrichetta); Kaunas State Choir & Symphony Orch.; Constantine Orbelian, cond / Delos DE 3537

Taped in July 2017 and scheduled for release August 20, this performance of Bellini’s old warhorse bids fair to overtake all previous commercial recordings of it, In part this is due to the perfectly-balanced cast, but also to the energetic approach of all singers concerned, the lean but not irritating orchestra, and the fact that this issue finally restores all cuts to the score.

Of course, I Puritani is not as dramatic a work as Norma nor even as dramatic as Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor which was written the same year. It’s always difficult to infuse actual dramatic life into a work like this; not even Maria Callas of legendary fame really did all that much with the role of Elvira, and I’ve yet to hear the tenor who could make much out of Arturo. Part of the problem is that the libretto is stiff and formal, there’s never very much actually going on on the stage, and all people really go to performances of it for is to hear the Big Tunes sung by Famous Voices. I know, because in my youth I was as guilty as anyone. I once drove all the way from New Jersey to Hartford, Connecticut to see and hear soprano Cristina Deutekom sing Elvira. (Her Arturo was Pierre Duval, a competent but uninspiring tenor.)

The problem with I Puritani, as with so many serious operas by the “bel canto boys,” is that the plots are pretty much the same—what I would call modified Romeo-and-Juliet themes. The woman (soprano) who belongs to one family, clan, or religious sect is in love with the man (tenor) who belongs to the enemy family-clan-religious sect. They may or may not get permission to marry, but in every single case a major obstacle crops up to ruin things. Either the soprano, tenor, or both end up committing suicide or going mad or whatever. And these composers, rather than deal with dramatic situations by writing truly dramatic music à la Gluck, end up writing the equivalent of 19th century pop tunes—often with coloratura fiddlybits and always with high notes to thrill the audience. Thus there’s not much drama to sustain interest.

But if you simply take the attitude going in that this is what you’re going to get, Puritani ain’t the worst of them by a long shot. That palm goes to some of Rossini’s horrors (particularly Semiramide) and Donizetti’s ghastly “Queen trilogy,” where nary a dramatic note is struck in what are obviously quite dramatic situations. One of the most interesting and least pop-like operas to emerge from the bel canto era is Pacini’s Saffo, and how often do you hear THAT in the opera house? I rest my case.

And of course, the musical approach to performing these operas had changed so much by the 1930s and ‘40s (and well beyond) that we got used to hearing them only one way. Small wonder that Georges Prêtre’s 1965 recording of Lucia di Lammermoor was such a revelation, despite the fact that soprano Anna Moffo didn’t get under the skin of the character. It went like a rocket from start to finish, stuck to the score (including the opening up of several cuts, small and large, that had been made for more than a century) and galvanized listeners into taking it more seriously, at least as a musical construction which is really all you could ask for it.

Constantine Orbelian does much the same thing for I Puritani in this new recording. I’ve read reviews by critics who don’t think much of his conducting, but I’ve liked him ever since I heard his recording of Simon Boccanegra with the late Dmitri Hvorstovsky years ago, and even his aria recital disc with Sondra Radvanovsky was very well conducted. Here he uses an appropriately lean-sounding orchestra but, to my ears, one that does not play with consistent straight tone, which is historically correct. He achieves a fine if lean and clean orchestral sound from start to finish, and without a massive orchestra to cleave through he didn’t need a cast of singers with cannons for voices, which they didn’t have in 1835 anyway.

It’s a bit funny and ironic that, in this day and age, Eastern Europe has become the new Rome Opera for making Italian opera recordings. Back in the 1950s and ‘60s, all RCA, Decca or EMI had to do was run to Rome (or Bulgaria), contract the local orchestra and chorus for peanuts, rent the recording hall for less than it cost in New York or London, and bingo, an opera recording was made. Nowadays it’s Croatia or Lithuania, in this case the latter. But the quality of orchestral playing and choral singing has risen so dramatically all over the world since the 1960s that the results one hears on this recording would have easily passed for a world-class orchestra and chorus a half-century ago.

Nor is it just the choral singing that’s first-rate. Filling out this cast after the big stars Coburn and Brownlee are Kazakhstan baritone Azamat Zheltyrguzov, who has a lovely, warm voice (with just a little more flutter than I like) as Riccardo and a bevy of Lithuanian soloists who are probably not at all well known outside their native country (Tadas Girininkas, Liudas Norvaišas, Tomas Pavilionis and Jovita Vaškevičūtė) filling out the other solo roles, and by golly every single one of them sings well though not always with conviction. Girininkas is probably the most disappointing; his Giorgio has no personality at all, while Vaškevičūtė, as Queen Enrichetta, is the most emotive. But please note that these voices are not the heavier ones we were used to in the past. Zheltyrguzov and Girininkas do not sound like Louis Quilico and Paul Plishka or like Cappuccilli and Ghiaurov. They are on a smaller scale, which is much closer to what Bellini heard in his lifetime.

In addition to the strong casting and excellent choral singing and orchestral playing, one of the things I admire most about Orbelian’s conducting is that he makes the opera sound all of a piece, as if he had conducted it sequentially from start to finish—which we know very well never happens in a recording studio. Opera recordings are made with whichever singers are available for that particular session; the big stars generally have the shortest window of time to record, so they knock off all of their music as quickly as they possibly can, then work on filling in with Everybody Else as their availability opens up.

It would be nonsensical for me, or anyone else, to really expect a dramatic reading of this score from almost anyone considering the length of the libretto or the inherent triteness of the plot, but if I had to put one singer on a pedestal it would be Sarah Coburn. She really does give her all, not just vocally with her rich, heady voice and sterling technique, but also in at least trying to make a real character out of Elvira. I greatly prefer her to Sutherland, Sills, Caballé or Netrebko in this role. As for Lawrence Brownlee, it’s rather amazing to think that he was 45 when he made this recording and had been singing professionally for about 20 years. His voice sounds as fresh, clean and unstrained as when I first heard him back in the 1990s when he sang Tonio in Fille du Regiment at the Cincinnati Opera. No deterioration whatsoever, and although he has the much harder job in trying to make a real character out of a nutcase religious fanatic, he really does do his best.

Perhaps my readers who are allergic to bel canto music in general and Puritani in particular will get more out of this recording if they simply approach it as an entertainment and not something as serious as an opera. Think of it as the secular version of Messiah and you may like it better. Certainly, Bellini was at heart a serious composer whose music was taken quite seriously in its day—Berlioz preferred him to Donizetti or Rossini, and both Wagner and Verdi were huge fans of Norma and La Sonnambula—and he had a wonderful command of the use of “falling chromatics” in his scores. His rivals Rossini and Donizetti were stunned by his early death at age 33 (two months before his 34th birthday). Rossini personally ordered an autopsy, which showed that he died of severe dysentery, while Donizetti took the unusual step of writing a full-scale Requiem Mass for him (one of his greatest works, in fact).

If one thinks of the “dramatic” arias and scenes in this opera as being representative and not literal presentations of drama, one’s appreciation for the music will increase. One thing you’ll notice, if you hang with it, is that Bellini was much more skilled at writing continuous scenes that developed musically than most of Rossini or Donizetti, who thought in terms of the single scene (and/or aria). This, along with his skill in writing very long lines that continued to morph and develop (think of “Casta diva” or “Ah, non credea mirarti”), had a positive effect on the development of opera in his time and after his death. Only in La Favorita and Lucia did Donizetti come close to this, and Rossini only did so in Mosé and Guillaume Tell. Thus we really do have to take him seriously as a composer, and a very good one at that.

But even during his brief lifetime, Bellini had to put up with capricious singers and conductors who felt the need to abridge his work, which he hated and complained about to no avail. (Read Kenneth Stern’s superbly detailed and wholly accurate book on Giuditta Pasta.) Once an opera house had paid their fee to mount an opera, it was their decision how much of it to perform, not the composer’s. Thus it is good to get ALL of I Puritani, for once at least, in this recording.

I know enough about bel canto lovers to know that some will dislike Orbelian’s straightahead conducting. He does not linger unnecessarily on certain phrases or high notes, and allows only a bit of rubato in the phrasing of both orchestra and singers. Yes, Brownlee is allowed to linger a bit on his high D-flat in “A te, or cara” and Coburn to hold her high note in “Son vergin vezzosa.” Live with it. (Brownlee also sings the written but often inaccessible high F in “Credeo a misera.”) Otherwise, this is a wonderfully taut reading and, unlike José Lopez-Cobos who also conducts taut performances of bel canto operas, Orbelian injects life and feeling into the orchestra musicians. They do not sound like a bunch of automatons playing on autopilot.

Bottom line, I really enjoyed this recording and consider it the finest overall Puritani on the market, LP, CD or DVD. If you keep an open mind, I think you’ll agree.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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