Bellini: I Puritani Import
This dates from near the beginning of Maria Callas's recording career. It was for many fans their first encounter with her, and it contains some of the most beautiful singing she ever did before a recording microphone. Set in 17th-century England, during the struggle between the Puritan supporters of Oliver Cromwell and the Cavalier royalists who supported the Stuart dynasty, this opera focuses on the problems of Elvira, a young Puritan woman in love with Arturo, a member of the Cavalier faction. Complications arise, Elvira believes she has been betrayed by Arturo, and she loses her mind. Her mad scene (a kind of music for which Callas developed a formidable technique) is the opera's musical and dramatic climax, but by no means the only reason for getting to know it. While the role of Elvira towers over the others, ensemble singing is a strong part of I Puritani's appeal. Callas's voice was in its top form for this recording, and her superb acting skills convey many subtle shades of anguish. She dominates the performance, but her supporting cast is better than those she usually got before becoming a major international star, and they work well together. --Joe McLellan
It's hard to put into words, but as with many great recordings, the sum seems to exceed the the parts. Starting with the recording itself, the sound of this Callas version is what you would expect from the mid-50s--very listenable but not up to modern standards.
The conducting is terrific. Serafin keeps things moving, and the integration of tempi throughout each act give it a unity that's surprising for an 1834 opera. Yes, it's typical bel canto opera with arias, cabalettas and bridge passages, but he makes it hand together amazingly well. It really sounds like a DRAMA.
To take a specific example, the duet with Callas and Panerai in the middle of Act 1 is really magnificent: the whole thing takes energy from the vigorous yet subtle accompaniment, which Serafin shapes beautifully to match what the singers are doing and underline the words. Callas and Panerai listen to each other and really act, using Bellini's gorgeous melodies to serve the words. The whole scene is a object lesson in how Italian opera should be done. Bravo!!
The recording is a gem. Really!!
While this is my favourite Puritani, because of the marvellous Maria Callas in the role of Elvira, I also own and delight in other recordings of this opera. I see no point in downgrading other singers' performances - Callas's achievements do not need that. I do not need to despise other singers in the role - Callas's beautiful and emotionally powerful singing is not given anything extra by scorning others.
On the contrary... I adore all beauties in music, and respect all the work that great singers have put into bel canto music such as is found in Puritani. Beverley Sills is a marvellous Elvira; Anna Moffo is incredibly beautiful in the role; Mirella Freni is heartbreakingly lovely as Elvira; Joan Sutherland (particularly in her earlier recording) was stunning in the role; Gruberova is a dream Elvira... and it goes on.
For all that, Callas remains my favourite. I can hear the aching truth of Elvira's emotions in the voice of Callas. I hear Callas not as Callas, but as Elvira. There really is no better recording of this gorgeous opera, and each note, each phrase has meaning in the superb artistry of Callas.
Di Stefano is fine in the role of Arturo, and the other singers are equally adept. The conducting by Serafin is magnificent - I think no other conductor understands Bellini as Serafin does.
I refuse to part with any of my "Puritani" recordings - but this one, above all, is the most frequently played of them all.
There exists a copy of her I Puritani in Mexico with di Stefano, which finds her in spectacular voice. However, as astonishing as the recording may be, it doesn't have the sensitivity that this recording with Serafin has. Under the baton of Guido Picco, the inner beauties of Bellini's score is not realized. Under Serafin, a greater dramatic canvas is laid out for Callas' genius. The many coloratura sopranos who handled the part before Maria sang the role to showcase the many runs and trills to impress the operatic audience, but Callas renewed the part with dramatic insight and a darkness that other sopranos could never explore. The mad scene alone is worth the price of this recording, and I find that it has more meat to it than the Cetra recordings. Her voice is freer in this recording than most of the recordings that she made for EMI in the years to come. Hers is an Elvira of madness, of delirium, something that only Callas can touch, and it is because of this that I would highly recommend it to you to listen to her Elvira. Accompanying her in this recording is Giuseppe di Stefano, a legendary lyric tenor who effectively sings Arturo's part with an ardour that he compensated for in the Mexico performances. The opera is conducted by Serafin, a master of bel canto, and I would just like to say that this recording is as essential as Puccini if you want to hear truly good music.