I did a chart of the current I Puritani mad scene from YouTube to try to get an idea of the differences between the voices. I have modified the original contest selection to include Maria Callas 1949, Cecilia Bartoli 2007 and Natalie Dessay 2007. Only the cabaletta is considered. All of these performances are on YouTube. [Maybe not any more-can't currently find Bartoli.]
I tried to evaluate them by categories:
My opinion of their tone.
How slurred are the fast notes.
How much scooping and sliding.
How many added notes, trills, etc.
How do they treat rhythm and tempo.
There is wide variation in each category.
Lucia Aliberti was vying for the Maria Callas award, due to the strange darkness of her tone. Most have strong but not dark voices. Occasionally she actually sounds like Callas.
It is not a coincidence that I prefer Anna Netrebko and Anna Netrebko has the darkest color in her voice. That’s what I like. A light fluttery singer like Maureen O'Flynn or Natalie Dessay doesn’t appeal to me. Ruth Ann Swenson is as light as I enjoy.
However, it was interesting to notice how Joan Sutherland had opened her tone between 1963 (above) and 1972 (below).
It should be clear from this fabulous example that Joan is the point of departure. She has the big Wagnerian voice turned to coloratura that is the norm for many of these singers. An example before Joan would help us understand her influence.
Such as Maria Callas in 1949. Callas sounds like Callas, take it or leave it, though at this early date there is no wobble. She is on the dark end.
[Stefania Bonfadelli and] Natalie Dessay seemed the most clearly articulated, though none of them could be said to aspirate their fast notes the way Cecilia Bartoli often does.
The group is about half clearly articulated and half slurred. Joan slurs a bit, but Ruth Ann does not. Edita Gruberova slurs. You’d think from reading the comments that Anna Netrebko slurred atrociously, but she is right about in the middle—more slurred than *Ruth Ann, but less than Sutherland and Gruberova. The slurred style is consistent with Callas, though she is certainly not exaggerating it. Netrebko's studio recording of this aria is more articulated. I prefer the DVD.
Scooping and sliding
In the none to very little category are
Luciana Serra, a very cleanly articulated singer,
Mariella Devia, whose tempo is quite slow,
June Anderson, Lucia Aliberti, Elizabeth Carter, Sumi Jo,
Ruth Ann Swenson, Stefania Bonfadelli, and Maureen O'Flynn. Netrebko is about midway between these and the great scoopers and sliders Joan Sutherland and
Edita Gruberova. It is interesting to note that these last two are the most loved. Gruberova is hard for me. Joanie is doing it but her style feels correct to me. Dessay does not scoop at all and slides only small amounts. Callas is a lot freer, about midway between Netrebko and Sutherland. Bartoli scoops and slides only minimally.
Annick Massis does quite a bit.
There is also a none to very little category here, and it includes Luciana Serra, Mariella Devia, Lucia Aliberti,
Sumi Jo, and Stefania Bonfadelli.
Joan Sutherland adds a lot of them between her first and second performances. Performance practice is advancing. June Anderson, Elizabeth Carter, Annick Massis,
Maureen O'Flynn and Anna Netrebko do more.
Gruberova does even more, but the hands-down winner in this category is Ruth Ann Swenson, leader in what I have dubbed the kitchen sink category of outrageous ornamentation. Who saw that coming? I guess she is trying to make up for her limitations in the scooping and sliding category. Dessay is not as extreme as Swenson, but displays a lot of very original and stylish ornamentation in the repeat.
Callas and Bartoli sing only one verse, precluding the option to vary the repeat with added ornaments. I have included a very early film of Bartoli and not the version on recording.
Treatment of rhythm and tempo
Another thing to play with is variation in tempo. One of the things I enjoy about the bel canto is the fact that the tempo suddenly becomes fluid. The conductor is going to expect this, so most of the women do it. Ruth Ann is good at varying the tempo.
Cecilia emphasizes rhythmic variety, her specialty. She starts light and picks up steam, sweeping you up with her rhythmic energy. She is cutting an entirely new path. It is regrettable that this version is no longer available.
I like the way Anna Netrebko phrases, but this is personal taste. It is also purely personal taste that says Edita Gruberova is too out there. She does more than you could possibly imagine. I'm not crazy about Dessay's voice, but I do like her style in this aria. She creates atmosphere with her phrasing.
Maria Callas is in the cutting edge of revival of performance of Bellini and is extremely influential in creating the idea of correct performance practice.
In general the greater the artist the more stuff they do. It is their stuff that makes them famous. If they sing along at the same dynamic level, like most of the women in the list, they are going to have to make up for it somewhere else. Lucia Aliberti is into varying the dynamics. Bartoli has completely reshaped the aria into her own vision.
Anna is very conservative compared to Gruberova and Sutherland. Anna is best at being Anna. You will probably love Gruberova or hate her. This has turned out to be a far more interesting exercise than I expected.
If you are none to very little in all of these categories, you are probably not rich and famous. Get out there and take some risks. Make the music your own. I don't know about you but this is all the I Puritani I can stand for now.