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Review by Henry Fogel

BELLINI I puritani Constantine Orbelian, cond; Sarah Coburn (Elvira); Lawrence Brownlee (Arturo); Azamat Zheltyrguzov (Riccardo); Tadas Girininkas (Giorgo); Kaunas St Ch & O DELOS 3537 (3 CDs: 162:07 Text and Translation)

This release is something we don’t see too often any more: a studio recording of a complete opera, especially an opera with a number of fine recordings already available. In addition, Delos is a label one might not particularly associate with opera recordings, although its relationship with conductor Constantine Orbelian has moved it more in that direction. Whatever factors are responsible for this new I puritani, I am delighted they came together. This set takes its place comfortably alongside the finest available recordings of Bellini’s final opera, and surely one of his most beautiful.

The prime motivating factor behind the recording is probably Lawrence Brownlee, who is without question one of the finest bel canto tenors singing today, and to my mind one of the greatest ever. On disc the competition in this opera consists of tenors such as Luciano Pavarotti, Giuseppe di Stefano, Alfredo Kraus, and Javier Camarena. Brownlee’s performance is worthy to stand in that company, and if I were forced to choose only one Arturo as the best, it would be his. Brownlee combines brilliant high notes with a uniquely beautiful voice—there’s a bit more velvet in his sound than in the others, di Stefano aside, along with stunning agility and deeply ingrained musicality.

“But what about the famous high F in ‘Credeasi miserai’ in the opera’s final scene?” I hear you asking. Not only does Brownlee hit it, but he sings it. The note sounds like an integral part of his voice, and it is therefore integrated into the musical line, which I have never heard before. In the rare cases when a tenor attempts a high F, it sounds like its own moment, a kind of “look what I can do” feat. Here, after the first striking impression, listening again makes you realize how seamlessly the note blends into what comes immediately before and after it.

Soprano Sarah Coburn does not yet have the prominent international profile of Brownlee, but I imagine it won’t be far off. She has everything required for a successful Elvira. First, her high notes, like Brownlee’s, sound as if they belong to the same voice as the rest of her singing, and they are freely produced. Her runs, passagework, and staccato attacks are completely clean and shaped by a firm rhythmic sense. Her imagination and instincts serve Coburn well in the ornamentation she adds to second verses. It is perhaps unfair to point out that Coburn lacks Callas’s ability to shape and color her performance in such a way as to make Elvira a more complex character than we might have thought; Callas is sui generis in this music, but Coburn infuses life into Elvira through specifics of inflection. The last note sung in the opera is a fabulous high E♭ held over the chorus, which is produced here with no feeling of stress. In any era there are very few sopranos who can exhibit the pyrotechnics demanded by Bellini’s score while also spinning out a beautiful legato line. In this generation Coburn is certainly one.

The remainder of the cast consists of one soloist from Kazakhstan (baritone Azamat Zheltyrguzov) and several fine Lithuanian singers. In particular, Zheltyrguzov and bass Tadas Girininkas give strong performances as Riccardo and Giorgio, bringing clarion tones to their duet, “Suoni la tromba.”

The American conductor Constantine Orbelian, who is of Armenian-Russian descent, is music director of the Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra in Lithuania. He finds the right balance between letting his singers have expressive freedom and retaining overall shape and firmness of line. Delos’s booklet provides a complete libretto with translation. The opera is given without cuts. Anyone who loves the bel canto opera should be thrilled by this release. Henry Fogel


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