Freni, Bezzi; Kraus, D'Orazi, Arié; orchestra and chorus, Verchi. No text or translations. Bongiovanni HOC 081-82
Some might be puzzled to see Mirella Freni's name heading a cast of I Puritani. But it is instructive to remember that while Maria Callas's vocally opulent Elvira restored dramatic vibrancy to Bellini's heroine in the early 1950s — and successors such as Joan Sutherland and Beverly Sills contributed vocal virtuosity to their performances of the opera with their heavily ornamented Elviras in the 1960s and '70s — the role was created by Giulia Grisi, the first Norina in Don Pasquale. Freni may not have had the unique Callas combination of musical and histrionic genius and technical facility — or the propensity for added vocal roulades and interpolated high notes demonstrated by Sutherland, Sills, Gruberova and others — but she is as persuasive as many and more moving than most.
This "live" Puritani, recorded in Modena on December 26, 1962, is the second to surface featuring Freni; the first was a 1969 RAI broadcast, with the young Luciano Pavarotti as Arturo, under Riccardo Muti (available on Opera d'Oro). Each set is worth owning for the work of the soprano, which is vocally ravishing and dramatically alert on both, as well for her tenor partners — Pavarotti in '69 and Alfredo Kraus in '62 — and for the conducting. Muti is predictably marvelous, but so is Nino Verchi in this performance, drawing highly expressive, elegant performances from his singers while shaping a Puritani that is more than usually potent dramatically. The big drawback in this set is the use of cuts, even more extensive than customary for the time; not only are repeats of cabalettas sliced out, but substantial sections of duets and ensembles disappear as well. This may have contributed to a well-paced reading in the theater, but one can only regret the loss of such a chunk of the score.
The good news is a superb cast, committed to every moment of what remains of the music. The sheer beauty of the twenty-seven-year-old Freni's voice is often startling; in this early-career performance it is somewhat brighter and fresher than even a few years later, and she is capable of all the written fioriture. Freni was never a slouch when it came to delivery of passagework, and it should be remembered that any acuti above high C are interpolated into the soprano role, which is comparatively lower than the part of Arturo, written for Rubini. Freni does add high Ds in a number of customary places, but they tend to be glassy and on the underside of the pitch; she wisely avoids the usual E-flat inserted into the cabaletta in the mad scene.
Rather than writing a traditional entrance aria, Bellini composed an entrance duet for Elvira; from her first phrase, Freni creates a living, breathing character — a vulnerable, spirited young woman. She is well-partnered by bass Raffaele Arié, whose sympathetic Giorgio is smoothly vocalized and gently nuanced throughout. Both of Elvira's big scenas, "Vieni al tempio" and "Qui la voce," are deeply moving highlights, but they are also perfectly integrated into a total characterization. Unfortunately, this performance predates Richard Bonynge's unearthing of the final cabaletta for Elvira (composed by Bellini for Maria Malibran, who died before she could sing at the Naples premiere), so, with a big cut taken in the finale, the opera ends rather abruptly.
Kraus, captured here in his youthful prime at thirty-five as Arturo, never had the most intrinsically beautiful tone, but his elegant phrasing is more than ample compensation. Kraus's secure high D-flats and D-naturals are dispatched with a sense of bravura. (The high F in "Credeasi, misera" is replaced by a D-flat.) The great surprise of this set is the Riccardo, Attilo D'Orazi, whose bright, Italianate, Battistini-like baritone delivers the balance between Riccardo's rage and heartbreak through lyrical outpourings alternating with vocal bluster, without ever lapsing into vulgarity. Unfortunately, some of his loveliest music — notably most of Riccardo's opening cabaletta — ended up on the cutting-room floor, but what remains is beautifully sung and eloquently phrased. In the small role of Enrichetta, Rita Bezzi maintains the level of dramatic tension established by the others, crucial to the "rescue" scene.
The Modena forces may not be the most polished, but under Verchi's direction they deliver a reading on a par with Tullio Serafin's in terms of theatrical potency. This intensity never flags, even in passages of pure lyricism, making this a particularly affecting Puritani. The live-performance sound is quite acceptable.
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