Q & A: Sarah Coburn on ‘I Puritani,’ Bellini & Her New Recording

By Francisco Salazar
(Credit: Ervin Photography)

On August 20, Delos released a new recording of Bellini’s final masterpiece, “I Puritani.”

The new recording featured one of today’s great Bel Canto interpreters, Lawrence Brownlee and New York City Opera’s new Music Director Constantine Orbelian. It also featured American coloratura Sarah Coburn singing the leading role of Elvira.

Over the years Coburn has performed Bel Canto roles around the world including works by Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini exciting audiences with her “precision placement, mercury speed, gorgeous liquid gold tone, and gilded thrilling top.”

The new recording marks Coburn’s first complete Bel Canto recording and OperaWire had a chance to speak with the soprano about the process of working on Bellini’s opera and her favorite moments in the work.

OperaWire: How did you get involved with the recording of “I Puritani?”

Sarah Coburn: My dear friend Larry Brownlee recommended me to Constantine Orbelian. When he told me, I jumped up and down in delight.

OW: “I Puritani” is one of the masterpieces of the Bel Canto repertoire. Tell me about recording this work and what you learned from this experience?

SC: It was an incredible privilege to record this piece. I will always be grateful to Constantine for inviting me to be a part of it.

OW: This work is sometimes said to have a “bad” libretto. Do you think that is true or do you think in today’s day and age we can actually find ways to interpret this libretto?

SC: I think we need to stop requiring Bel Canto libretti to be something other than they are. I approach “I Puritani” as it is—a story that is told through gorgeous music. The plot is not incredibly strong, but it is tellable as it is—much more so than when we try to update, or superimpose a director’s new ideas upon it (and for heaven’s sake, don’t change the supertitles to fit the “concept!”). I try to think of it as a simple story, nothing more. The historical context is extremely important to respect unless we are simply trying to destroy an already simple and sentimental plot. Elvira has an emotional journey, and as long as I follow the arc of her story, I can do my job.

OW: Do you have any favorite moments in this piece?

SC: I tend to enjoy mad scenes, mostly because I give myself a bit more freedom and permission to let go—I am less judgmental of myself in these scenes, perhaps because my character’s cognitive functioning has gone offline? Who knows!

OW: Bellini’s music is expansive and long. What are the biggest challenges in this music?

SC: The biggest challenge for me in any role, whether Bel Canto or not, is trusting myself. The expansive and long passages require trust more than any other. The moment I start to think, “I might not make it to the end of this phrase,” I am doomed. The most challenging parts of this role for me seem to be the codas. There is a great deal of taxing repetition at the ends of the arias and duets, some of which are typically cut. We tried to minimize the cuts for this recording, so my muscle memory was challenged a bit in moments where I had become accustomed to cuts.

OW: How does Elvira’s music compare to other Bel Canto works you perform?

SC: It seems to be more through-composed. You will notice that at the ends of some of the arias, there is no abrupt ending that lends itself to stopping for applause. I love the way Bellini seamlessly moves us to the next moment, especially after “Son vergin vezzosa.” Even at the end of the mad scene, the orchestra keeps moving. I think there is more depth of emotion in Bellini’s melodies when compared to Donizetti. I am not sure how else to describe it. They seem to be infused with genuine melancholy, which for me, makes them more challenging but at the same time more fun to sing.

OW: Tell me about working with Lawrence Brownlee on this opera?

SC: Larry and I have been friends for over 20 years. It is always a pleasure and privilege to sing with him. We have had some great laughs over the years, on stage and off. No one can touch him in this repertoire, so recording this with him is an incredible honor.

OW: Tell me about working with Constantine Orbelian and what was his approach to the Bel Canto work?

SC: Constantine is a singer’s conductor. He is exactly the kind of conductor that one would want to approach a project like this. He is confident, supremely capable, and supportive.  He trusted us and did not micro-manage our approach to the roles. Working with him was a dream.

I also want to mention the fantastic contribution of John Fisher. He was with us every step of the recording and was a tremendous support and coach during the entire process.

OW: Finally, the Bel Canto works are always exciting in terms of high notes and coloratura passages. Did you get to experiment in this recording?

SC: I did not experiment too much; most of what I did was what I have done in the role before. This was my first complete recording of a Bel Canto opera, so I played it safe for the most part. I did add a high F at the end of Act one; I can’t let Larry have all of the fun!


InterviewsStage Spotlight