It is said of I Puritani that it is a true soprano opera, but that is not really quite the case. Elvira may be the pivot around which everything revolves, she is also one of the most passive opera heroines I know. Everything that happens around her and to her, happens in spite of her; because apart from loving and going mad, she doesn’t seem to be able to do much of anything at all.
It is the bass (her uncle Giorgio) who devises all sorts of plans to steer the action in the desired direction, and for this he is rewarded by Bellini with a most beautiful aria (‘Cinta di fiori’).
In order to save the mad soprano from certain death, he asks the baritone to spare the tenor’s life, which ends in a gorgeous duet (‘Suoni la tromba’), a real show-stopper.
Samuel Ramey and Sherrill Milnes:
The tenor also, who in a fit of patriotinic frenzy seems to send the whole thing into disarray, gets to sing a lot of beautiful (and high!) notes.
John Osborn with Mariola Cantarero from Amsterdam 2009:
All these roles require an excellent bel canto technique, with good coloratura, leggiero and legato. And don’t forget a sense of pure drama, because Bellini (and his librettist!) have created a lot of havoc for the poor soprano: first she becomes delirious with joy, then she loses her mind. She then regains it, only to lose it again immediately. Are you still there? Because it’s not over yet: her mind comes back once more and immediately she’s delirious with joy again. Ouch… Fortunately, the opera stops here, because poor Elvira apparently has to repeat such tricks a few times a day
Elvira, like Lucia, was a showpiece for Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland, both of whom recorded it several times. In 1974, Richard Bonynge (Decca 4175882) made a peerless recording of the opera, besides Sutherland, there was the sublime male trio: Luciano Pavarotti, Nicolai Ghiaurov and Piero Cappuccilli. Sutherland sounds like a little heap of misery, and her virtuosity knows no limits. Pavarotti still possessed all his glorious long high notes in those days and he pops them out with no effort at all.
The recording with Callas from 1953 (Naxos 8110259-60) is weighed down by the fact that Giuseppe di Stefano is totally unfit to sing Arturo. But Nicola Rossi-Lemeni (Giorgio) and Rolando Panerai (Riccardo) are excellent, and Tulio Serafin conducts with verve and theatricality. Unfortunately, the score is not complete.
A good (and complete!) alternative is the 1973 recording under Julius Rudel (Westminster 4712072), with a very virtuoso Beverly Sills. Arturo is sung in an extraordinarily beautiful and elegant way by Nicolai Gedda. His approach to the high notes is delightful, and personally I find it very pleasant to listen to him.
Conclusion; you are best off with the Decca and Westminster recordings. You get all the music, all the high notes and the best male voices. But since Naxos’ recording with Callas is in the budget class, why not buy it! Because of the conductor, because of the bass, but mainly because of La Divina. Because let’s be honest – nobody else can go so deliciously mad.
It gets more difficult if you want to buy the work on DVD, because I cannot recommend either of the performances I watched without any reservations.
The Metropolitan Opera production, filmed in January 2007 (DG 0734421), is over 30 years old and was originally made for the Sutherland/Pavarotti duo. Perhaps this explains its total lack of personal direction?
There are these monumental tableaux-vivants , in which nobody seems to be allowed to move. The sets are ‘larger than life’ and all the costumes ‘historically accurate’. Anna Netrebko is a very imaginative Elvira. And although she lacks trills, her top notes are there and her presentation (charisma?) is more than convincing.
Both the bass (John Relyea) and the baritone (Franco Vassallo) are reasonable, but no more than that. Eric Cutler (Arturo) has a pleasant timbre and he reaches (albeit with difficulty) the high notes, but it is not really spectacular.
Netrebko sings ‘Deh Vieni al Tempio’ from the first act:
But Cutler is much better than the totally miscast José Bros in the fifteen-year-old production from Barcelona (ArthouseMusik 107267). His voice is at least a size too small for Arturo. Edita Gruberova is a matter of taste. I do not like her ‘pussy-mouthed ways’ and I do not really want to watch her, but with my eyes closed there is little to complain about, because yes, she can sing bel canto.
Carlos Álvarez is a first-class Riccardo, but the rest of the cast …. Ah, let’s not talk about it. Andrei Serban’s direction, on the other hand, is truly sublime and exciting, I enjoyed it a lot. A friend I was watching with summed it up like this: Netrebko is for straight men and Gruberova (because of Álvarez) for gays and women, but of course it is not that simple. If only we could cut and paste!
A 25-cd Bellini box set is an absolute must. For 90 euros only, you get all of Bellini’s operas, two of which (La Sonnambula, Norma) are also available in two different versions. Many well known names too: Callas, Caballé, Scotto, Ciofi, Bernstein…
Most recordings are live and the sound and performance quality vary, but who cares? Among them, of course, is I Puritani, recorded in Catania in 1989, with Mariella Devia as Elvira. In the beginning, she is a bit of a disappointment, but gradually she gets better. Not only does she have all the top notes at the ready, she also brings in a lot of (her own) embellishments, and if that is not part of the art of bel canto, then I don’t know what is.