OP3321. I PURITANI, Live Performance, 13 March, 1976, w.Bonynge Cond. Met Opera Ensemble; Joan Sutherland, Luciano Pavarotti, Sherrill Milnes, James Morris, etc. (Canada) 2-St Laurent Studio YSL T-914
"Wow! That is my one-word summary for this remarkable display of bravura singing. To be sure, to fully appreciate every bit of Bellini's genius you should own one uncut recording of I PURITANI - either the second Sutherland/Bonynge recording for Decca or the Caballe - Muti set on EMI. Each has its adherents, and each has earned them honestly. But for the kind of visceral thrill that is always more likely to occur in a live performance, this Metropolitan Opera broadcast from 1976 stands apart. One gets the feeling that everyone involved knew, deep down, that this assemblage of singers was producing something that might not be repeatable.
It doesn't get off to the greatest start, with a rather limp reading of the (thankfully) brief prelude under Bonynge's baton. In the opening chorus things pick up, and while this never becomes the kind of energized and supplely-shaped reading that you can hear (in very different ways) from Tullio Serafin or Riccardo Muti, the energy generated by the singing does make its way to the podium.
A successful performance of I PURITANI actually needs four great singers, not just two. The bass and baritone parts of Giorgio and Riccardo are important, and they also get one of the opera's hit tunes: 'Suoni la tromba'. It is hard to imagine a more electrifying performance of that duet than this one from Sherrill Milnes and James Morris, both in their primes (Milnes was 41, Morris 29), ending with a remarkably strong high A-flat from Milnes. The audience reaction indicates their enthusiasm.
But in the end one purchases a recording of I PURITANI for the soprano, and possibly for the soprano and tenor. Joan Sutherland and Luciano Pavarotti were justly famed for this kind of music, and here they deliver. Pavarotti, at 41, was in the middle of his prime years, and Sutherland, nine years older, was near the end of hers. In fact, in the first few minutes of her singing Sutherland exhibits a bit of cloudiness and tonal unsteadiness in her middle register. This vanishes quickly, and from then on she demonstrates why she was a superstar. What made Sutherland so unusual was the flexibility of her voice combined with its size and richness. Her coloratura is cleanly articulated without aspiration, and her high notes are a natural extension of the voice. They don't lose tonal quality by becoming shrill, hard, or squeaky.
As noted by her critics, Sutherland's diction was anything but crisp, but everything else is so spectacular here that the bad diction can be viewed with tolerance or even ignored. What counts in bel canto (as opposed to IL TROVATORE or LA TRAVIATA, which she added to her repertoire) and where diction and rhythmic pulse take on added importance) is primarily the singer's ability to sustain a legato over a long line, to shape a phrase with an instinct for when to increase tension and when to release it, and to maintain a consistent vocal quality over a wide range. Sutherland had every bit of that, and she sings here with greater dynamism than on her studio recording. She seems to have been energized by the presence of an audience and by the level of everyone else on stage.
Pavarotti was not yet the superstar of 'The three tenors' (that phenomenon began in Rome in 1990). At this stage he still sang as if he truly cared about subtleties of dynamic shading and dramatic interaction. His glorious, bright tenor is used here with an intelligence that you might find surprising if you only know the Pavarotti of the late 1990s and early 2000s. There is a wonderful naturalness to his phrase-shaping, and he interacts dramatically with everyone else in a convincing manner. Whereas on the Decca recording, using falsetto, he hits the famous high F in 'Credeasi, misera', he wisely avoids the risk here, substituting a D-flat in full voice. That note is spectacular, as is the earlier D-flat. This is singing that is simultaneously beautiful and thrilling.
The performance employs the standard cuts, which excise about a half-hour of music. The three smaller roles of Enrichetta, Gualtiero and Bruno are well sung by Cynthia Munzer, Philip Booth, and Jon Garrison. The orchestra and chorus do their part well. St. Laurent Studio's transfer is, as usual, of a very high quality. Some will take issue with the fact that the lengthy ovations that follow many of the opera's big moments have been left in. I would argue that this was the right choice. Those who object can use the remote to forward through the applause. But for some of us the kind of tumultuous, almost hysterical, ovations given this performance are part of the thrill. In sum: anyone who loves the bel canto era should own this recording. We overuse words like 'unforgettable', but this truly is!"
- Henry Fogel, FANFARE