Bellini’s I Puritani: true bel canto!

If Bellini wrote I Puritani for bel canto superstars, it follows that one needs a team of superstars to perform it. The Metropolitan Opera’s current cast is that, happily as much for their stage action and sincerity as for their beautiful and passionate singing.

  Diana Damrau and Javier Camarena star in the Met's  I Puritani

Diana Damrau and Javier Camarena star in the Met's I Puritani

The lovers Arturo and Elvira are well taken by Javier Camarena and Diana Damrau and well suited for each other. Each has a clean vocal line, a pure bright tone, and a spectacular upper range. Elvira is a spirited young woman of the Puritan sect whose impending marriage to Arturo, a member of the enemy Royalists, is cause for great excitement and peace. If Damrau’s quick staccato movements are sometimes at odds with Bellini’s more leisurely music, they allow for the proper behavioral contrast between a joyful Elvira and the doleful Elvira after Arturo has inexplicably fled the castle. Her decomposition at this news at the end of Act I is well done; her Qui la voce sua soave in Act II captures the bipolarity of her “madness,” as does the contrast in Act III between her “Gee, I’m so glad you’re back” (at Arturo’s return to fetch her) to “Hey, wait, are you leaving me again?” He is understandably confused upon hearing this. Damrau is wonderful as Elvira.

  Elvira's Mad Scene in Act II of  Puritani

Elvira's Mad Scene in Act II of Puritani

Camarena, too, was forthright and demonstrative in his expression of love for Elvira both in Acts I and III. The famous quartet in Act I A te, o cara, for me Bellini at his best, was Camarena at his best too: simply heavenly; the extended duets of Act III layer one exciting vocal display on top of another. It was an exhilarating evening of bel canto singing all together, not to be missed.

  Luca Pisaroni and Alexey Markov in Act II of  I Puritani

Luca Pisaroni and Alexey Markov in Act II of I Puritani

But the lower voices are well taken too. Alexey Markov’s evenly ranged baritone provides richness to the role of Riccardo (Elvira’s intended before Arturo) and bass baritone Luca Pisaroni is a wise and comforting Giorgio (Elvira’s uncle). Their extended duet Il rival salvar tu dêi to end Act II brought the house down, as well it should.

Sir Bruno Robertson is sung by Eduardo Valdes; Gualtiero is sung by David Crawford; Enrichetta, the Queen, was sung by MaryAnn McCormick, replacing Virginie Verrez.

Maurizio Benini’s leadership of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra produced variable results. While at times he brought out that special movement to Bellini’s melodic lines, at other times the music seemed to lose its flow. The Metropolitan Opera Chorus, under the direction of Chorus Master Donald Palumbo, is well served by Ming Cho Lee’s sets: their sound is focused and enriched. Bravi!

Sandro Sequi’s production, new in 1976…yes, just over 40 years ago, for Joan Sutherland and Luciano Pavarotti…has held up particularly well. The staging, realized by Sarah Ina Meyers, is what one calls ‘traditional’ these days. Elvira’s mercurial mood changes are well portrayed in conjunction with the text, as is Arturo’s unflagging devotion to her; Gil Wechsler’s lighting provides the proper atmospheres in every scene. Peter J. Hall’s costumes are rich and colorful.

Vincenzo Bellini wrote his last opera I Puritani di Scozia as the ultimate bel canto oeuvre for four of the greatest singers of their era: it premiered on January 24, 1835 at the Théâtre Italien with Giulia Grisi, tenor Giovanni Battista Rubini (aka just Rubini), baritone Arturo Tamburini, and basso Luigi Lablache. They, soon known as ‘the Puritani Quartet,’ would create Donizetti’s Marin Faliero on March 12th and bring Puritani to London later that May. The ‘same’ cast, but this time with Mario instead of Rubini, premiered Don Pasquale in Paris in 1843. Bellini was the buzz though, the real deal. Sopranos fought over Norma, most notably Giuditta Pasta and Maria Malibran. Entranced by the dramatic and flamboyant Malibran, Bellini rewrote Elvira for her unique vocal timbre and technique, the new score to be delivered for her in Naples. Sadly, this version of Puritani did not reach Naples in time for her to perform it, the contract was cancelled, he died and she died. Son vergin vezzosa in Act I was especially written for Malibran; it’s now traditionally inserted into the score of the original Grisi version.

So today we have singers who are in all likelihood as fine as the ones mentioned just above. We missed them, through no fault of our own. But don’t miss this Puritani: it’s a vocal tour de force. What opera is all about, in other words.

Review performance date: February 22, 2017.

Photos: Marty Sohl

I Puritani is performed here in three acts with two intermissions; the running time is about three hours and 35 minutes.

I Puritani appears again on the Met stage on the evenings of February 25 and 28. Evening curtains are usually 7:30 p.m.; later on the 25th. For ticket information or to place an order, please call (212) 362-6000 or visit www.metopera.org. Special rates for groups of 10 or more are available by calling (212) 341-5410 or by visiting www.metopera.org/groups.

Enjoy! Sun screen in February?! Record high notes for I Puritani and also pretty close for a record high temperature today…can summer come so soon?

JRS

******