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I Puritani hits the high notes

Marion Oliver McCaw Hall
05/03/2008 -  and May 4, 7, 10, 11, 14*, 16, 17
Vincenzo Bellini: I Puritani
Norah Amsellem (Elvira), Lawrence Brownlee (Arturo), Mariusz Kwiecien (Riccardo), Joseph Rawley (Lord Gualtiero Walton), John Relyea (Giorgio), Fenlon Lamb (Enrichetta), Simeon Esper (Sir Bruno Robertson)
Seattle Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Beth Kirchhoff (chorus master), Edoardo Muller (conductor)
Robert A. Dahlstrom (set designer) Peter J. Hall (costume designer), Thomas C. Hase (lighting designer), Joyce Degenfelder (hair and makeup designer), Linda Brovsky (stage director)

I Puritani, Vincenzo Bellini’s final opera before he died at 35, is rarely performed because of the caliber of voices it requires. Seattle Opera General Director Speight Jenkins waited for 25 years to chase down the talent that filled the demands of the 1835 bel canto tour de force.

Judging by the “gold” cast (a secondary silver cast is rumored to be almost as good as the first-stringers) who pulled off the exquisite long lines, Jenkins found his singers.

Bellini, after all, wrote his operas first and foremost for stellar voices. And he expected the audience to remember his art for its melodies. Thus, the chorus and orchestration are secondary compared to the arias and ensemble pieces. As Bellini said in 1834 to his librettist Count Carlo Pepoli,"Opera, through singing, must make one weep, shudder, die."

Soprano Norah Amsellem’s performance, especially in her mad scene in the second-act aria when she sings “O rendetemi la speme o lasciate, lasciatemi morir” (Oh, give me hope once again or let me die) allows the French singer to show off her hauntingly flexible voice and vivid acting. She throws back her small-boned body to reach the high G, inhabiting the opera’s largest role as the distraught Elvira. The rarely sung role gives such high-profile madwomen as Verdi’s Lady Macbeth and Donizetti’s Lucia de Lammermoor a run for their intensity.

Against the treacherous backdrop of warring factions of Puritanical England during the mid-17th Century, Elvira fights off succumbing to a loveless marriage to Riccardo (baritone Mariusz Kwiecien) with the help of her uncle (bass-baritone John Relyea). Elvira then thinks she has lost her intended, Arturo (tenor Lawrence Brownlee), to another woman, when actually he is helping the imperiled Queen Enrichetta (mezzo Fenlon Lamb) escape death.

Convinced that she has been abandoned, Elvira goes crazy for the rest of the 3½-hour opera. At the end, she gains sanity, Arturo is officially pardoned after being accused of treachery, and the lovers seal their future with a kiss.

Amsellem is a gifted interpreter of Italian operas. She offers rigorous, mellifluous singing that stands up to Brownlee’s tenor. He is short but powerful, reaching the third-act sought-after high F with a full chest rather than a falsetto.

Kwiecien, the Polish baritone who sings Riccardo, adds his usual grace and dash to the stage, though, in my opinion, he should always have huge roles! (He sang Don Giovanni in Seattle in 2007 and was “bravoed” until the crowd was hoarse.)

Robert Dahlstrom’s massive set of steely planks, spiral stairs, and platforms allowed the cast to project from multiple levels, giving the piece a complexity that complements the melodies ranging over several octaves. Though I Puritani is tailored to the four main singers, there is a huge cast to accommodate, all beautifully attired by Peter Hall in romanticized period dress. They were first designed for the Metropolitan Opera in 1976.

The opera proved a rich treat for the West Coast crowd, who rarely gets to hear such extravagant singing.

Angela Allen



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