Bellini I Puritani
Were I puritani to be produced as frequently as La boheme, one could still spend a lifetime of opera-going and not come upon a performance as distinguished as any of these. Obviously all are desirable, and still more obviously, as far as most of us are concerned, all cannot be had. It may be simplest and safest to allow personal preferences for one or other of the three great ladies to settle the matter: all are at their characteristic best and each has her own special gift to bring to the role. For unfortunates like myself who find this only adds to the difficulty, the following notes may help: but I doubt it.
Puritani is a tenor's opera as well as a soprano's. Di Stefano, who partnered Callas so well in Puccini, is out of his element here. His untidy approach to notes from below, his uncovered upper register and wide-open vowels cause one again to regret the loss of that elegance imparted to some of his earlier recordings, such as the Mignon and
Perhaps the conductors can decide the issue. Bonynge and Serafin are brisker than Muti, who takes a languorous approach, no bad thing in Bellini as long as there is tenderness and sensitivity, as indeed there is. All secure good orchestral playing, Bonynge having a little extra liveliness, Serafin a little more weight. So the conductors are unlikely to be the deciding factor after all, and one turns to the question of recorded sound. The Callas version from 1953, by now 'historic', lacks the detailed clarity of the others yet is still remarkably vivid and full-bodied, not obviously 'dated'. The EMI sound in the Muti recording perhaps has more opera-house atmosphere than the Decca, which compensates with brighter definition.
No, it is back to the three great ladies. But here again the account is largely predictable. Caballe, often exquisite, especially in the quieter music, loses quality in loud high passages and has not much sparkle in the cabaletta, ''Vien, diletto''. Callas constantly amazes. The thrill of the first sound of her voice at the start of the great solo scene, the sadness which underlies the gaiety of the Polonaise, the affection of her verse in the final duet—all have the stamp of greatness. On the other hand there are occasional sour or raw high notes, where in Sutherland's performance these are the crowning glory. She also sings with feeling, phrases broadly, invests her fioriture with unequalled brilliance, but commands less dramatic intensity than her rivals.
Clearly, objectivity is getting us nowhere: time to fall back on pure personal prejudice.'