Vincenzo Bellini: I puritani
Diana Damrau (Lady Elvira Valton), Javier Camarena (Lord Arturo Talbo), Nicola Testé (Sir Giorgio), Ludovic Tézier (Sir Riccardo Forth), Annalisa Stroppa (Enrichetta di Francia), Miklós Sebestyén (Lord Gualtiero Valton), Antonio Lozano (Sir Bruno Robertson), Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro Real de Madrid, Andrés Máspero (chorus master), Evelino Pidò (conductor), Emilio Sagi (director), Daniel Bianco (set designer), Peppispoo (costume designer), Eduardo Bravo (lighting designer), Jérémie Cuvillier (film director and editor), François Duplat (executive producer)
Live recording: Teatro Real, Madrid, Spain (July 2016) – 181’
BelAir Classiques BAC142 (or Blu-ray BAC442) – 2.0PCM/5.1 DTS HD Master Audio – Picture format: 16:9 – Region 0 – Booklet in English, French, German and Spanish – Subtitles in English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Korean and Japanese (Distributed by Naxos of America)
This performance sent me into raptures, mainly thanks to the committed performances of Diana Damrau and Javier Camarena. I also liked (very much) the symbolic production and its design, though many would question certain aspects of it. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that I look upon it with a degree of indulgence.
The work itself requires a modicum of indulgence, with its simple plot. (When Beverly Sills was discussing I puritani while introducing the work to the cinema audience for the Metropolitan Opera’s second HD broadcast in January 2007, she exclaimed rhetorically “It has a plot?!?”)
Here it is: In England during the civil war of the 1600s, a young puritan woman, Elvira Valton, has fallen in love with a royalist, Lord Arturo Talbo. This has annoyed her puritan fiancé, Sir Riccardo Forth, but she has the sympathy of her uncle, Sir Giorgio. Arturo becomes involved with rescuing the widowed queen, here known as Enrichetta di Francia. Elvira thinks he has abandoned her and she goes melodically mad. But by Act III they are reunited, Riccardo abandons his vengeful plan against Arturo and her sanity is restored. It is all just an excuse for some of the most beautiful music Bellini (or anyone) ever wrote (it was his final opera).
The work has moments when the drama sags, but one simply must wait it out until the next stream of limpid melody begins its flow. The key concept is legato.
The production makes no attempt to give a history lesson but manages to conjure up a mysterious atmosphere. The male chorus wear uniforms that are vaguely modern - but also wear swords. The female chorus wear demure black bonnets (aha - puritans!) The dark set has some mirrors and what appears to be sand on the floor. There are wonderfully atmospheric lighting effects. Two dozen chandeliers descend at key moments. I know this sounds wacky, especially when during her mad scene the soprano enters carrying a glowing crescent moon. It all magically works. Trust me.
I can’t say enough nice things about Javier Camarena’s singing. His voice has an ardent, honeyed smoothness that he maintains throughout the great range demanded by the role. I have heard tenors who take the safe route and opt not to attempt the brief passages above high C - this is totally honorable. I have heard one well-known tenor go for them and miss the mark each time (what a nightmare!) I have also heard tenors who nab those notes, but it’s a scary moment for everyone concerned. Camarena confidently rides the music all the way up. The close-ups reveal the effort, but he accomplishes it each time. And all the while he looks ecstatically pleased to be there, even in the melancholy moments.
Of course it isn’t just Arturo’s show. Diana Damrau’s Elvira is a complete match, with stunning tone and, of course, the legato. The chemistry between the two performers is something to behold. They deserve a place in the opera history books for this.
Then there are the baritone and bass-baritone roles. Ludovic Tézier as the frustrated swain Riccardo has a couple of moments when his canto is less than , but overall his voice and technique fit Bellini’s style. Nicola Testé is ideal as the sympathetic uncle. The two have a great duet “Suoni la tromba” - yet another high point.
The queen makes a brief appearance and one usually has no memory of her (she’s really just a dramatic device), but Annalisa Stroppa is given a glowing golden costume that Queen Elizabeth I would have thought over the top. She is then disguised when she dons Elivira’s bridal veil. This make no sense, and it does not matter. Her brief bit of singing is nicely done.
The final act begins with a rousing thunder and lightening storm, and it goes from strength to strength thereafter. The reconciliation scene totally stops the show (and there is a cut to the audience outdoors reacting to watching a projection.) This is followed by the tenor’s rejoicing aria, joined by the soprano, baritone and bass-baritone - to yet more hullabaloo. Throughout conductor Evelino Pidò reveals a loving affinity for the work, while the orchestra and chorus demonstrate the Teatro Real’s enviable high standards.