BLO's "I Puritani": Bellini with a Dollop of Caviar

Elvira (Sarah Coburn) & Arturo (John Tessier)
(photo: Eric Antoniou)

Without being too puritanical about it, to say that the libretto for Vincenzo Bellini‘s opera “I Puritani” strains credulity would be quite an understatement. The composer himself instructed his librettist Carlo Pepoli that this shouldn’t be a concern, as he was more interested in making beautiful music. And so he did, as evidenced by Boston Lyric Opera’s new production of Bellini‘s bel canto masterpiece. Conducted by the company’s music director David Angus, with Stage Direction by Crystal Manich, this is a thoroughly enjoyable and immersive piece despite the incongruities of its plotting. While it’s often performed in three acts with two intermissions, this version is presented with its three acts done in two parts with only one intermission, a sensible decision given the length of the first act and the relative brevity of the other two acts. Not only does this make for a shorter evening, it also makes dramatic sense of what survives the nonsensical dramaturgy. It does present a challenge for the singers in an already daunting score both in its length and its vocal demands. It’s one of the reasons this opera is not done more often. Suffice it to say that, in the right hands, Bellini’s tenth (and final) opera is as much a delight to hear today as it must have been in 1835 at its Parisian premiere. Happily, opera lovers are truly blessed with this particular cast, but more about that later.

First, for those needing a refresher, here is a brief synopsis. Based on Ancelot and Saintine’s “Les Têtes Rondes et les Cavaliers”, the story takes place in the mid-1600’s in Plymouth (England, that is) after the execution of King Charles I, with the loyalists (Cavaliers) still fighting the Puritans (Roundheads). The opera centers around Elvira (soprano Sarah Coburn) and her impending wedding. She had been initially promised to Riccardo (baritone Troy Cook), but subsequently given a dispensation to marry Arturo (tenor John Tessier) by her father Gualtiero (bass Liam Moran), despite her Puritan background and Arturo’s status as a Cavalier. Riccardo, quite understandably overwhelmed with grief, is consoled by his friend, the Puritan soldier Bruno (tenor Omar Najmi). Elvira’s father reports that he will be unable to attend the ceremony since he will be accompanying the late king’s wife Enrichetta (soprano Chelsea Basler) to prison and probable death. On learning this, Arturo sneaks Enrichetta out of the castle disguised as his bride. When he disappears, Elvira misunderstands and goes mad. (This is Bellini, after all, and a Victorian opera). Her Uncle Giorgio (bass-baritone Paul Whelan) tries to support her, convincing Riccardo to overcome his desire for revenge. When Arturo returns, though accused of treachery, Elvira begins to understand and pardons him, having received news of the defeat of her enemies via a sort of “deus ex littera”, seemingly paving the way for their wedding. (This production ends uniquely, which may be a shock for those familiar with the piece). Never mind the absurdity of an impediment to marriage having been inexplicably removed, or a subsequent (and equally inexplicable) pardon. As Bellini himself attested, he was more interested in the lyricism of the music than the coherence of the plot.

Now about the cast: That dollop of caviar refers to the rare talents of these singers who are wonderfully capable of delivering such delicious coloratura. The reunion of Coburn and Tessier (lauded for their part in BLO‘s “Barber of Seville” two seasons ago) was a stroke of genius, as they have obvious chemistry together and again prove their virtuosity, especially in Arturo’s paean to his prospective bride, “a te, o cara, amor talora”, as well as his troubadour song, “corre a valle, corre a morte”, and in Elvira’s mad scene aria, “qui la voce sua soave”. The entire opera can be a breathtaking (almost literally) endurance contest for the singers, especially the lead soprano (so much so that by all rights many feel the opera should have been entitled “Elvira”). While they may not sustain the highest notes as long as some singers in beloved studio recordings, they impress with their passion in character. Not only is their sound lovely, but their diction is estimable; one needn’t be multilingual to appreciate the beauty of the Italian language. Whelan’s Georgio is a commanding presence, and both Moran and Cook provide strong support. Najmi and Basler, both part of the Emerging Artists program with the company, are fine in supporting roles. (Basler will be featured next season in the Boston premiere of Frank Martin’s “The Love Potion”). The chorus, except for a rough entrance at one point, did great work, though the women in the ensemble were at times involved in some rather odd movement. The Set Design by John Conklin, composed of stylized fragments and moving panels, was serviceable, aided immensely by the effective Lighting Design by Paul Hackenmueller. Angus conducted with a firm understanding of the text and the orchestra responded in kind.

This was, in the end, a throughly enjoyable presentation, musically and emotionally (given the libretto’s shortcomings) of this rarely performed Bellini gem. It’s a production no serious opera lover should miss.

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