Incredible, but true, I Puritani had not been performed in Great Britain since 1887 when Glyndebourne decided to stage it in 1960 with the main intention to showcase Joan Sutherland, who had been catapulted to international superstardom one year earlier in the legendary Lucia di Lammermoor at Covent Garden.
Furthermore, Vittorio Gui, who had already been introducing the Glyndebourne audiences to Rossini, was eager to add more belcanto works to the repertoire of that opera company. This effort is now documented on the CD just released on the Glyndebourne Enterprise label.
The first thing that caught my attention is the butchery that Gui did to the score. Not a single piece, with the exception of the Larghetto maestoso “Oh vieni al tempio” at the end of act I, escapes his scissors. Small and big cuts abound everywhere. At the beginning of the opera only half of the Prelude is performed; the whole instrumental introduction to the Allegro sostenuto marziale “Quando la tromba squilla” (about 25 measures) disappear, and the chorus itself is severely reduced.
Dame Joan apparently did not yet have sufficient star power, because even much of her music is slashed: the whole daccapo of her Act I duet with Giorgio is missing, and two big cuts in her Polonaise total over 80 cut measures. In her Mad Scene, both the tempo di mezzo and the daccapo of the cabaletta are pruned. This is the exactly kind of horror that very soon led La Stupenda to decide to drop her collaboration with any conductor other than her husband.
I could continue and list all the excisions, of which I have duly made a note, but it would be redundant and fastidious. I will point out some of the most Draconian cuts as I comment the performances of each singer.
Gui, his blood-curdling editing choices notwithstanding, is quite good: graceful, elegant in the most lyrical moments, tense and suspenseful in the Allegro agitato assai of the dramatic conversation between Enrichetta and Arturo, and almost terrifying in pages like the storm at the beginning of Act 3. He pays attention to details that are often overlooked, such as the Act II tenebrous brief ensemble “Quaggiù nel mal che questa valle serra”, an Andante of Gluckian tinge. He likes it so much that he repeats it immediately before Elvira’s “O rendetemi la speme”, eliminating the horns and bassoons introduction written by Bellini.
He also proves to be one of those old school Italian conductors able to assist the singers, complying with, and often foreseeing their intentions.
Dame Joan is simply marvelous. In the first act duet with the bass, she throws herself with gusto in the difficult agilità di forza that characterize this piece, produces two perfect consecutive trills on the G and A on the words “di dolor” and ends it with a huge, endless high D. That she sails spectacularly through “Son vergin vezzosa” comes as no surprise, while more unexpected turns out to be the heartfelt anguish she communicates in the Act I finale, with a piercing, desperate F flat on the word “ahimè”.
This early in her career, the Australian soprano was clearly trying to pay a closer attention to her fraseggio, while in subsequent years the vocalist increasingly and unapogetically prevailed on the interpreter. Even her diction, always her Achilles’ heel, was here much brighter and more comprehensible. She is hardly a vocal actress, but her effort to articulate cannot be denied.
In 1960 both ends of her extremely wide range were equally strong. In “Oh vieni al tempio”, the two octaves descent from high C to low C is stupefying. Surprisingly, she does not conclude the first act with the high B flat written by Bellini, opting to end on an octave lower. Another absolute rarity for Dame Joan is the small crack she experiences in the cadenza after “Ah tu non sai che più nol temo” in Act III, where for a fraction of a second her voice breaks on a high C sharp: an insignificant incident in an otherwise flawless performance, in my opinion superior to both her studio recordings of this opera, which are however generally preferable for the reopening of the cuts.
Giuseppe Modesti (Giorgio), distinguishes himself for the handsomeness, if not for the volume, of his bass. He is elegant, noble, paternal, and especially emotionally involved. He invests his act II romanza with ductility through tasteful fiati rubati, rallentandos and messe di voce; his high Es flat are round and secure, while the conclusive low A flat turns out rather faint.
Ernest Blanc, at the height of his power, is a notable Riccardo. His baritone is homogeneous, warm and rich, with a bass-like low register (the low A flat on “per anni ed anni” in his cavatina, a real hurdle for most baritones, is here perfectly supported and sonorous), as well as a confident top: both the high G at the end of the cabaletta (whose daccapo is eliminated) and the A flat concluding “Suoni la tromba” are notes that could peel the paint off the ceiling. The only problem in this duet is that Blanc sounds more of a bass than Modesti.
With a cultivated legato, Blanc is a true gentleman, a chevalier, who elicits sympathy. His pertichini during Elvira’s mad scenes are heartbreaking; the gorgeous phrase Bellini writes for Riccardo (“gli occhi affisa sul mio volto…”) is haunting in Blanc’s rendition, with a sweet E flat piano.
Blanc was active in a time when opera in France was mostly sung in the vernacular language, and his relative unfamiliarity with the Italian language is here and there manifest. Other than this, his Riccardo is one of the best I have heard.
The fly in the ointment is the Arturo of Nicola Filacuridi. The Egyptian-born Greek tenor, who Italianized his name as it was still fashionable in those days, is already slightly flat on the very first note of “A te, o cara”. The famous C sharp lasts exactly a semiquaver. I suspect he did not do it out of respect of Bellini’s notation (that’s how the composer writes it), but rather because he was unable to hold it longer.
Already facilitated by the huge quantity of cuts (for instance, more than half of “Non parlar di lei che adoro”, with all those Gs and As, is expunged), he sings the rest of the score looking for a compromise after the other. In “Vieni fra queste braccia” (where over twenty measures of music vanish), he ducks the high D, while in the daccapo he switches parts with the soprano, who caps it with a glorious high C, drowning completely Filacuridi’s smallish voice. In “Ella è spirante”, not only he does foreseeably skip the high F in altissimo, but does not even attempt the high D flat. Furthermore, he often shuffles words when singing above an A, making sure the high note falls on the vowel E instead of A or O. In a few words, an Arturo who can barely make it to a high C sharp is simply fraudulent.
Dame Joan’s frequent co-star, Monica Sinclair, sings Enrichetta, and bass David Ward is Lord Walton.
A final curiosity: the CD cover lists British tenor John Kentish (Bruno) as the third name after Sutherland and Filacuridi, and omits Ernest Blanc altogether; the inside booklet places Kentish’s name at the very top (even before Sutherland!). I would not be surprised if our own Vicar of Wakefield had had a hand in it.