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Vincenzo BELLINI (1801-1835)
I Puritani - opera in three acts (1835)                         
Gualtiero Walton, Puritan Governor General and Elvira’s father - Valerian Ruminski (bass); Elvira, his daughter - Anna Netrebko (soprano); Arturo, a Cavalier and supporter of the Stuarts in love with Elvira - Eric Cutler (tenor); Riccardo, a Puritan officer who has been promised the hand of Elvira - Franco Vassallo (baritone); Giorgio, a retired Puritan colonel and elder brother of Lord Walton - John Relyea (bass); Bruno, a Puritan officer - Eduardo Valdes (tenor); Enrichetta, widow of the executed Charles the first - Maria Zifchal (soprano)
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Chorus and Ballet/Patrick Summers
Production: Sandro Sequi. Set design: Ming Cho Lee. Costume design: Peter J Hall
rec. live, 6 January 2007; 1976 production.
Filmed in 16:9 High Definition; Colour; Sound formats: PCM Stereo, DTS 5.1.
Subtitles in Italian (original language), English, German, French, Spanish. Notes and synopsis in English, German, French
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 0734421 [2 DVDs: 149:00 + 22:00]
Experience Classicsonline


In the spring of 1833 Bellini’s ninth opera, Beatrice di Tenda, (see review) was presented at Venice’s La Fenice. It was not a success. During its composition Bellini had quarrelled with Romani his librettist and long-time friend, even mentor. At about the same time, back in Milan, the husband of Giuditta Cantu, his mistress, discovered some letters that left no doubt about the nature of the relationship of his wife with the handsome composer. A scandal followed and the husband and wife separated. Bellini had earlier accepted an offer from the King’s Theatre in London to present several of his operas. Turning his back on Giuditta Cantu he left for England. His operas were successful in London where he met and was infatuated, or even more, with Maria Malibran.
 
Despite the success of his operas in London, no new commissions were forthcoming, and Bellini decamped to Paris, the musical capital of Europe. His earlier operas had preceded him and he was welcome in every salon, and particularly that of Madame Joubert. Bellini hoped for a commission from the Opéra, having made contact with its director, Veron, on his way to London. When no commission arrived, Bellini accepted one from the Théâtre Italien where his Il Pirata and I Capuleti e I Montecchi had been favourably received by audiences if not by critics. Having fallen out with Romani, Bellini looked around for a new collaborator. His choice fell on Count Carlo Pepoli, an Italian political radical in exile in France whom the composer had met at a salon of like-minded fellow Italians.
 
Following the custom of the time composer and poet decided to adapt a recently successful play as the basis of the new opera. They chose the historical drama by Ancelot and Boniface based on the English Civil War in the period after the execution of Charles I. By using this story, composer and librettist also sought to exploit the European infatuation with Sir Walter Scott’s works and at one stage called the opera I puritani di Scozia, the title of an Italian translation of the novelist’s Old Mortality. Count Pepoli was no Romani and he and Bellini had many disagreements in the course of the construction of the libretto with Bellini seeking advice from Rossini as well as depending on what he had learned working with Romani as well as his own theatrical experience.
 
The action of the story takes place in Plymouth after the massive defeat of Charles I at the hands of the Puritans, his execution, and the defeat of the Cavalier rebellion. The Puritan governor, Lord Valton, has agreed to the marriage of his daughter Elvira to Lord Arturo Talbot, a Cavalier, after persuasion by her uncle Giorgio and despite having originally promised her hand to Riccardo Forth, a captain in his Puritan army. Valton explains that he cannot attend the ceremony, as he is to take a prisoner to London to stand trial. Arturo recognises the prisoner as Enrichetta, widow of the executed king. To save her from certain death he smuggles her out of the castle in Elvira’s bridal veil, passing her off as his wife. Elvira assumes she has been betrayed and loses her reason. Giorgio implores Riccardo to save Arturo from death otherwise Elvira will die of grief. He reluctantly does so. Arturo returns to the castle and explains his sudden disappearance to Elvira who, after more mental anguish as she worries that Arturo will desert her again or be executed, is finally convinced and restored to reason. Cromwell, who has defeated all the Royalists, declares an amnesty that allows the marriage of Arturo and Elvira to go ahead
 
With a dream cast of Giulia Pasta as Elvira, Rubini in the high-lying tenor role of Arturo along with the famed baritone and bass Tamburini and Lablache, Bellini’s long melodic lines and mad scenes made I Puritani an outstanding success from the first night. The opera was performed seventeen further times in the Paris season before travelling first to London and then throughout Europe. Fellow Neapolitan Queen Maria Amelia received Bellini and he was awarded the Légion d’Honneur. Somewhat fragile in health at the best of times, and after the tensions of the production, Bellini returned to stay with his Parisian hosts and planned additions to I Puritani for an Italian production with Malibran. He suffered a recurrence of the gastric problems from which chronic condition he had ailed for some time. Despite the attentions of Princess Belgoioso’s personal physician, Bellini died on 23 September.
 
Unlike his contemporaries Bellini did not compose at speed. In his brief life he had composed a mere ten operas finding greatest fame with Norma, at least after its disastrous first night. Like I Puritani it is characterised by long and flowing melodic lines with one section blending nearly imperceptibly into another. It was a technique that even Verdi did not either emulate or achieve until late in his compositional career.
 
Although the quartet of the premiere went to London and was performed there, becoming known as The Puritani Quartet, the focus of the opera is the soprano singing Elvira. It is an ideal vehicle for a singing actress with coloratura facility. When Anna Netrebko, being the lady of the moment at many of the best operatic addresses, decided to dip her elegant toes deeper into the highly testing waters of bel canto opera, she did so in New York with this I Puritani. This was a very brave step. The city saw Joan Sutherland at the height of her powers, in the role of Elvira alongside Pavarotti in 1976. The city is also the home town of the late Beverly Sills whose performances of the Donizetti Tudor Queens and Bellini’s Elvira are still held in fond memory by many New Yorkers. Having made her choice, the Met wheeled out the 1976 set for her, with some new costumes it is rumoured. The set is opulent and some may consider it dated with backdrops of castles and a large central staircase. In reality, both the set and costumes are appropriate to the period, although I thought the colourful costumes of the ladies rather non-Puritan. There is no need to search for some hidden message or political concept. Bellini would have recognised his opera - no little plus point these days where works about civil wars and involving religion often seem perverted for the sake of variety and producer egos, leaving audiences struggling and empty seats.
 
Well, as the saying goes: if you’ve got it flaunt it. Netrebko has perhaps the most appealing stage presence among contemporary sopranos. She is a natural stage animal who can sing as she moves around the stage and interacts with her colleagues. Her sheer physicality on stage is awesome. This skill is well illustrated in her hyper-active Salzburg Violetta (see review). I have heard she did some training as an acrobat and she certainly moves her trim figure with the lithesome quality of an athlete. At one point in Elvira’s mad scene she sings with her head hanging over the orchestra pit (Disc 2 Ch. 4). This was, it seems, Netrebko’s own suggestion and is frankly a bit over the top. It became a talking point and in my view it detracts from the many virtues of her well sung and acted performance. In that scene, when she sings those vocal tours de forces, O rendetemi la speme Qui la voce, Netrebko first descends the stairs before whirling then twisting and laughing hysterically in Elvira’s madness. She varies the colour of her voice consummately, singing with pliancy, plaintively and with mezza voce tone when appropriate. Add excellent diction, vocal characterisation, heft and secure top notes and Netrebko shows herself worthy of the role and to be named alongside her illustrious twentieth century predecessors including Callas (see review). Not all is absolute vocal perfection in Netrebko’s interpretation. Her coloratura isn’t in the Sutherland or Sills class. In Son Vergin vezzosa (Disc 1 Ch.14) she smudges the coloratura and at the conclusion of the duet Qual suon desta? (Disc 1 Ch. 9) with Giorgio she cuts the final note a little short. However, for me her overall diction and variation in vocal colour and involved total acting more than compensates. No wonder there was rave applause from the Met audience at the end of the mad scene. Thankfully she did not break role.
 
As I have indicated, I Puritani demands four major voices. Regrettably the baritone Franco Vassallo’s Riccardo was a dull dog vocally and as an actor. His tone was lacking in variety of colour and vocal vitality in his opening recitative and aria Or dove fuggo Ah! per sempre io te perdi (Disc 1 Chs. 5-6). Fortunately he did come a little more alive in the famous duet of the final scene of act two, Il raval salvar … Riccardo1 Riccardo (Disc 2 Chs.6-7) when Giorgio presses Riccardo to save his rival from the scaffold as the latter’s death would also mean that of Elvira. As Giorgio, John Relyea, imposing of stature and a good actor, sang with steady tone throughout. Whilst not erasing memories of Sam Ramey or having his even vocal sonority, Relyea is steadier and more tuneful than the often woolly-toned Paul Plishka who seems now to only sing the comprimario roles with the company.
 
More important than the lower male voices is that of the tenor singing the role of the Royalist Arturo, who sacrifices his marriage to Elvira to save the Queen from certain death. With the renowned Rubini in the cast for the premiere, Bellini let the high notes multiply. In the storm music and Arturo’s serenade to Elvira and their following duet, high Cs and D proliferate for the tenor (Disc 2 Chs.9-12) and despite the earlier demands on him Eric Cutler copes with pinging notes and acted aplomb; no mean feat. Comparisons are odious, but Cutler’s singing and capacity to vary tone and inflect a phrase with elegance and nuance reminded me of the young Alfredo Kraus. I would not suggest he is at the standard of the late Canarian just yet, but his tall presence and the grace in his acting give me hope. He wisely avoided any ugly effort at the high F in Credeasi, misera, the note where Pavarotti does a semi-falsetto or croon on the Decca audio recording with Sutherland (417 588-2), by a downward transposition (Disc 2 Ch. 14). Has any tenor since Rubini managed this note from the head with ease and beauty?
 
The orchestral side of the proceedings are more than capably handled by Patrick Summers who had a natural feel for Bellinian cantilena. Those wonderful simple flowing melodies that are the hallmark of Bellini’s operas are lovingly attended to and receive their full due. In the intervals another reigning diva of the Met, Renée Fleming, conducts interviews with Netrebko (DVD 1 Ch.19, DVD 2 Ch.8) and on the Bonus with Beverly Sills. There are also some intriguing shots of scene-shifting and an interview with the stage manager. The picture quality is of a high standard although the video director has the habit of shooting from below, perhaps from a camera in the orchestra pit. This has the outcome of making tall men look elongated.
 
The only current DVD alternative is the performance featuring Edita Gruberova in Andrei Surban’s 1982 production for Welsh National Opera. This production with its sparse representational sets saw life in many theatres before this recording from the Liceu in Barcelona. I saw it a couple of times when still on the stocks of WNO, simply to experience bel canto in the theatre not for any particular enlightenment it brings to the plot or support for Bellini’s melodic lines. My colleague, Ray Walker saw the production at Covent Garden in the 1992 Covent Garden season with a star-studded cast which included June Anderson, Robert Lloyd, Giuseppe Sabbatini and Dimitri Hvorostovsky.  He finds more in the DVD performance than I do (see review). In the meantime I believe this Met recording sets the benchmark higher.
 
Robert J Farr
 


 


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