Oh, That High F from Tenor Lawrence Brownlee
From Broadway World, April 28 2014
One of the thrilling things about live opera performance is that it’s like watching a tightrope walker, particularly when it’s one with as many high notes and such florid writing as in Bellini’s I PURITANI. Only daredevils need apply.
That was the atmosphere when Russian soprano Olga Peretyatko made her Met debut last week. Bellini’s opera doesn’t make much sense except as an excuse for some bipolar behavior that results in misunderstandings, mad scenes and other assorted mishigas. And Peretyatko handled most of it with aplomb and first-rate singing, showcasing a flexibility and range that were impressive—no small accomplishment in an opera like this, where the challenges keep on coming. She seems to be a first-rate artist and, I’m sure, she’ll grow in the role, if she isn’t off singing Aida or Butterfly next year.
Back when this production was new—at nearly 40, it’s a little bit the worse for wear these days—Joan Sutherland was Elvira (and Luciano Pavarotti her Arturo). She was 50 at the time and a brilliant, fully formed artist, who might have been a bit ungainly on stage (at 6’2”), but never vocally. On the other hand, Peretyatko is a late bloomer at 34—she was originally supposed to debut at the Met this season in a relatively minor role in Strauss’s ARABELLA—and seems trying to make up for lost time.
Experience makes a difference here, despite the beauty of Peretyatko’s voice and her stamina in this grueling role, and she doesn’t seem quite to have gotten it under her skin. She walked the tightrope, all right, but sometimes you wondered whether she got through it by sheer guts and the help of her husband, Michele Mariotti, who conducted the Met orchestra in this graceful performance.
A leader of the pack
It’s the year of the tenor at the Met, and Lawrence Brownlee, as Arturo, is one of the leaders of the pack, as he wrested the spotlight away from Peretyatko, with a sensational vocal performance. He has power and flexibility—and not a little finesse—in a role that calls for everything a tenor has. “Everything” in this case includes a high F. It’s a note that I’m not sure exists except in the minds of sadistic composers. (There’s a performance compilation on YouTube that will show you what I mean.) But tenors will die trying to get there. Brownlee hit the note dead-on, though I would be pressed to say it was as beautiful to hear as his high Cs and Ds earlier in the evening.
A stellar performance
The third stellar performance of the evening was bass Michele Pertusi, as Giorgio, Elvira’s uncle/father figure, who sang suavely and surely. He even managed to salvage the debut of Belarussian baritone Maksim Aniskin, who replaced an indisposed Mariusz Kwiecien. In his solo work, Aniskin didn’t show a sign that he should be singing in bel canto operas like this one, which call for “beautiful singing,” but in duet with Pertusi he seemed vastly improved. As Enrichetta, the queen who puts the opera’s plot in motion, mezzo Elisabeth Bishop was a decided asset. The Met chorus turned in another of its grand performances, with a very high standard of singing.
This was the third Bellini opera at the Met this season, after NORMA and LA SONNAMBULA, and for my money, the score seems the best of the three. Catch it while you can.