Saturday, June 16, 2007

The Incredible Lightness of Bellini

[This is my review of the Opera Theatre of St. Louis production of I Puritani for KDHX-FM.]

Anyone who doubts the importance of luck in human affairs need only look at the history of I Puritani, the last opera of Vincenzo Bellini. In January of 1835 the former Sicilian prodigy (he was playing the piano at 3 and composing by the age of 6), now 33, was living in Paris, enjoying the profits from a string of hits that included Norma and La Sonnambula, and overseeing the premiere of what would be his valedictory work. It was an immense success - so much so that Bellini had to make cuts in the score to allow for the frequent ovations. When the San Carlo Theatre in Naples asked for a star vehicle for the noted soprano Maria Malibran, therefore, Bellini offered a revised I Puritani. They accepted and Bellini set to work, revising some numbers, cutting others, changing the role of Riccardo from a baritone to a tenor, and collapsing the three acts into two.

At this point Lady Luck (to quote a Guys and Dolls lyric) “blows on some other guy's dice”. A cholera epidemic disrupted European communication, causing the revised I Puritani to arrive in Naples too late for the 1835 season. It might have been rescheduled for 1836 but Malibran died from injuries sustained in a horseback riding accident on September 23rd of that year - exactly one year, to the day, after Bellini himself had died in France from acute dysentery resulting from an improperly-treated amebic infection. What are the odds?

The “Naples” version of I Puritani was refused by San Carlo and was thought lost until 1986, when it finally had its premiere at the Teatro Petruzzelli in Bari. This is the edition currently on view at Opera Theatre, giving local audiences a rare chance to see a performance of Bellini's finale ultimo. It's a solid production, with brilliant singing, generally fine orchestral playing, and staging that avoids getting in the way of the music. If you're a fan of Bellini's lilting melodies and the vocal pyrotechnics of bel canto singing, you won't want to miss it.

As music drama, however, I Puritani is something of a non-starter. Set in England during the religious civil war of the 1640s, the story (such as it is) centers on the rivalry between Royalist Arthur (Arturo) Talbot and Puritan Sir Richard (Riccardo) Forth for the hand of Elvira, daughter of the Puritan Governor of Plymouth, Lord Walton. Although betrothed by her father to Riccardo, Elvira loves Arturo. Her Uncle George (Giorgio) convinces his brother to accept Arturo as a son-in-law, but wedding plans are disrupted when Arturo helps Charles I's widow, Queen Henrietta, to escape the headsman's axe. All eventually ends happily when a victorious Oliver Cromwell declares a historically inaccurate amnesty for all prisoners, allowing Arturo and Elvira to wed.

If this strikes you as thin stuff for an opera that runs nearly three hours including intermission, you'd be right. Happily, there's plenty of beautiful music and great singing to sustain your interest when the plot goes into suspended animation.

Soprano Pamela Armstrong, who sang a great Mimi for OTSL in 2001, is a stunning Elvira. The role is a major challenge; Elvira is rarely off stage, has the widest emotional range of any of the characters, and goes through multiple “mad” scenes. Armstrong handles it all with ease.

Tenor John Osborn is a forceful Riccardo and mezzo Gloria Parker, who showed such comic skill in Street Scene last season, proves equally convincing the small dramatic role of Queen Henrietta. Bass Arthur Woodley got a chorus of well-deserved “bravos” for powerful voice and strong stage presence as Giorgio.

If they ever start handing out the operatic equivalent of a Purple Heart, tenor Frédéric Antoun surely deserves one for delivering a good and even, at times, great performance as Arturo, despite being heavily medicated for allergy symptoms. Although clearly in vocal distress during the first act, Antoun rallied in the second and was clearly much appreciated by the opening night audience.

Stephen Lord does his usual fine work with the Opera Theatre orchestra. Sandra Horst's chorus sounds powerful and precise, and director Chas Rader-Schieber delivers some interesting stage pictures, even if he does sometimes have his singers a bit too far apart during intimate moments.

Go see I Puritani, then, for the intoxicating music, David Zinn's fine period costumes and, above all, for the spectacular singing. This time Lady Luck blew on our dice and not “some other guy's”.

Opera Theatre's I Puritani runs through June 24th [2007] the Loretto-Hilton Center. Call 314-961-0644 for ticket information of visit the web site,

No comments: