RECORD OF THE MONTH
Vincenzo BELLINI (1801-1835) I Puritani – an opera in three acts (1835)
Elvira – Mariola Cantarero
Arturo – John Osborn
Riccardo – Scott Hendricks
Giorgio – Riccardo Zanellato
Enrichetta – Fredrika Brillembourg
Chorus of De Nederlandse Opera
Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra/Giuliano Carella
Francisco Negrin (stage director)
rec. live, het Muziektheater, Amsterdam, February 2009
Region Code: 0; Aspect Ratio: 16:9; Dolby Digital Stereo, DTS Digital Surround
OPUS ARTE OA1091D [173:00 + 10:00 (bonus)]
Performances of I Puritani are as rare as a four-leaf clover these days, and many opera lovers would travel a long way to see one if it turns up. I went to Amsterdam especially to see this performance in 2009 and I wasn’t disappointed. There were cameras in the auditorium that night as it was going to be relayed into Dutch cinemas. I hoped against hope that it would finally make its way onto DVD, and I’m delighted that it now has. It isn’t perfect, but it’s wonderful all the same, and I should say at the outset that I think it is now by some way the finest version of this opera that I’ve seen on DVD.
Francisco Negrin’s production suggests the 17th century setting through its costumes, but otherwise he more or less completely eschews the Olde England trappings embraced on the DVDs from the met (DG), Liceu (Arthaus) and Bologna (Decca). Instead the sets, designed with monumental vigour by Es Devlin, suggest a closed world of religious intolerance and fanatical adherence to the religious code. The walls are studded with Braille (verses from the Dutch Bible, in fact) and the characters periodically feel them as they go about their business. Devlin says in an extra film that the connection between Braille and bullet holes was too close to neglect, and the set effectively draws the comparison between the Puritans’ fanatical religiosity and the violence and misery that this can bring. During the first act various sets glide in and out like scenes from a film, but in the second and third acts things are more static and claustrophobic. Negrin’s chief idea is that the closed society of the Puritans cannot accept Elvira’s love for one of their enemies. In fact, they dismiss it as madness and so victimise her, preventing her self-expression and thus eventually sending her mad in reality. This is particularly clear in the second act where the great mad scene plays out in a courtroom with the delirious Elvira surrounded by accusatory figures holding Bibles and sitting in judgment. In the final scene Arturo is shot and the final ensemble, Credeasi misera, plays out as his death scene, remarkably successfully, as it turns out. The final arrival of the heralds and famously ludicrous deus ex machina ending takes place inside Elvira’s deranged brain: there is no happy ending for her as she cradles Arturo’s lifeless corpse.
You might not agree with Negrin’s and Devlin’s idea, but it never really gets in the way of the story and at times they facilitates its emotional power very successfully. The scale and drama of Devlin’s sets is very compelling, and you have to take your hat off to them for seeking some proper drama in an opera that is often dismissed as simply an excuse for pretty singing and little else. Bellini may well have been deeply frustrated with the libretto that Pepoli provided for him, but he still managed to provide vibrant music for it, and I suspect he would have been pleased at the attempt to inject some extra vigour into the story.
What really matters is the singing, and it is very good indeed. Truth be told, the collective experience of the live performance had somewhat exaggerated the quality of the voices in my memory. Repeated viewing on disc reveals that they’re not quite as outstanding as I remember them but they’re still of high enough quality to keep me coming back. The star – and here my memory does not fail me – is the outstanding Arturo of John Osborn. He was thrilling in the theatre, and is every bit as fine on disc. The voice is light, much more so than big bel canto beasts like Pavarotti, but he uses that to his advantage, creating a uniquely distinctive interpretation of the character. His Arturo is subtle, conflicted, and even wounded in places. His entrance in A te, o cara is spun with effortless ease and transparent beauty, easily cresting up to the C# in the second stanza, and the ensuing duet with Riccardo is exciting and dramatic. The voice seems, if anything, to broaden and mature by the time of the third act: the troubadour’s song is a little darker but still sung with an outstanding sensitivity to the Bellinian line, and his duets with Elvira are absolutely thrilling, be it in the blissful delight of Da quell dì or the exhilaration of Vieni, fra queste braccia. Furthermore, he even goes for – and convincingly hits – the top F at the end of Credeasi, misera. It’s thrilling when he launches himself into the stratosphere, territory where few other tenors dare to venture and which, as far as I can tell, no other tenor on disc attempts, except Pavarotti on Bonynge’s Decca account. He deserves a medal for even attempting to sing the role the way he does, and that he does so with such musicality and aplomb is little short of marvellous. I remember thinking on the night of the performance that I was lucky to hear Arturo sung like this even once in a lifetime. I stick by that. You won’t hear it more fine or as complete on any other disc.
His fellow singers are fine, though not quite in the same league. Mariola Cantarero’s voice has a slightly metallic edge that doesn’t always flatter her, but she has all the equipment necessary for the role and all the notes are there with security. One might occasionally wish for the opulence of Sutherland or Netrebko, or the youthful-sounding athleticism of Machaidze, but no-one will be left feeling short-changed. Scott Hendricks isn’t quite as mellifluous as I remember him in the theatre but his baritone is still convincing and interesting, and he stands as a good foil to the convincing, authoritative bass pronouncements of Riccardo Zanellato. Fredrika Brillembourg makes a good job of the minor role of Enrichetta, and she is helped in this by the inclusion of a scene often cut from the text. It’s a trio for Enrichetta, Arturo and Riccardo that takes place just before Arturo whisks Enrichetta off to safety, in which all three characters pause for contemplation. It helps to flesh out the characters dramatically and it’s also very effective music. In fact, in another short extra film the performers explain a little about the background to the “Paris version” that they are performing, which is effectively a much more complete critical version, restoring many traditional cuts and getting back to the composer’s original intentions. The orchestral playing is very fine and Carella’s conducting safe without being anything too special, though he rushes the end of Act 2 unnecessarily so that Suoni la tromba whizzes by without much note. The sound, however, is very well captured in DTS and the quality of the picture and camera work is very high too.
For me, then, it’s two thumbs up for this Puritani. The singing ranges from very good to excellent and the production makes coherent dramatic sense, even injecting some proper drama into the score. The main competition comes from Bologna, where Florez and Machaidze sing wonderfully, but the sound is boxy and the camerawork is irritatingly choppy. Netrebko’s version from the Met will appeal to her admirers, but her muddy way with the coloratura is a world away from bel canto style and Cutler is too thin as Arturo. The Liceu production, like that of Bologna, has rather odd suggestive sets, but Gruberova is past her best and José Bros will turn few heads. This Amsterdam version is, for me, the finest Puritani you’ll get to see, much more than just a memento of a good night in the theatre. Bravo, too, to Opus Arte for fitting the whole opera, including extras, onto one disc, thereby bringing down the cost. Why hesitate?
Two thumbs up for this Puritani.