Glorious voices soar in Lyric Opera’s ‘I Puritani’ despite troublesome plot

—Wynn Delacoma

If great opera is all about the singing, Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production of Vincenzo Bellini’s “I Puritani,” unveiled Sunday afternoon at the Lyric Opera House, is a winner. An immediate hit at its 1835 premiere, the opera contains some of Bellini’s most admired vocal music. If, however, the best productions combine stellar singing with persuasive stage action and characterizations, Lyric’s “Puritani” falls short.

Writing in the early 19th century, Bellini was a master of the bel canto style, that heady concoction of luscious, long-lined melody and fast-paced vocal fireworks. Last season, Lyric’s production of Bellini’s “Norma” offered bel canto opera at its vocal — and theatrical — best. Like “Puritani,” the plot has its illogical turns, but music, acting and stagecraft came together in a compelling way.

With “Puritani,” however, the weak plot, set in England circa 1650 as civil war raged between the rebellious Puritans and the House of Stuart, is a serious handicap. Adapted by librettist Carlo Pepoli from a play loosely inspired by a novel by Sir Walter Scott, the story is fatally contrived. Among the more baffling developments: The young lovers, Arturo and Elvira, are on opposite sides of the civil war. Her father initially forbids their marriage, then allows it, only to have Arturo seemingly jilt Elvira at the altar. She goes mad but recovers her wits when Arturo returns three months later, reaffirming his love. In the opera’s final moments, the war ends, amnesty is declared and the couple are free to wed.

Lyric has assembled some formidable resources to shore up this convoluted story. Two of bel canto’s brightest young stars, Russian soprano Albina Shagimuratova and American tenor Lawrence Brownlee, lead the cast. Designed by Ming Cho Lee and last seen here in 1991, the production still handsomely imagines 17th century England with an atmospheric setting of stony castle ramparts, vast, shadowy wood-paneled rooms and wild, stormy skies. “Puritani” is full of lively choruses, and especially during the crowd scenes Lyric’s cast, resplendent in Peter J. Hall’s costumes of rich velvets and broad, white-laced collars and cuffs, bring to mind a van Dyck painting.

Along with conductor Enrique Mazzola, who drew sensitive playing from the orchestra, Lyric’s principal singers made the most of Bellini’s masterful score. Shagimuratova has become a favorite with Lyric audiences, earning well deserved ovations for appearances last season in the title role of Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” and as Gilda in Verdi’s “Rigoletto” in 2013. Her soprano is strong but agile, its bright, silvery tone evoking elegant, sculpted sterling. Though Elvira’s mad scene is less famous than Lucia’s, it is similarly treacherous, and Shagimuratova managed its extravagant heights and precipitous depths with ease. She was especially affecting in Bellini’s deeply touching, slow melodies. Whether transfixed as Elvira recalling happier days or in the opera’s love duets, she shaped Bellini’s lilting phrases into rich, satiny lines.

Brownlee handled Arturo’s heroic, fulsomely decorated arias with equal aplomb. His tenor sounded open and largely unforced despite Bellini’s cruelly high registers. In the final scene, we never doubted his willingness to face death rather than leave Elvira. Romanian bass Adrian Sampetrean brought warmth and expressive depth to his role as Giorgio, Elvira’s elderly uncle and sympathetic champion.

The production’s most interesting character, however, turned out to be Riccardo, Arturo’s jealous rival sung by baritone Anthony Clark Evans. An alumnus of Lyric’s Ryan Opera Center, Evans sang with a dark, pliable tone whose finely grained texture underscored Riccardo’s simmering anger. As he paced the stage or slumped in fierce despair, Evans conveyed menace, bristling with the suppressed rage of a man whose beloved, solemnly promised to him by her father, has been snatched away.

Stage director Enrique Mazzola managed to keep the action moving smoothly, no easy feat when Lyric’s splendid choristers filled the stage. The opening scene however, a rousing chorus for the Puritan soldiers, was extremely dull. The singing was lusty and bellicose, but the men were immobile, standing in straight, static lines at the front of the stage, as listless as reluctant recruits called up for early morning drills.

The weak “Puritani” libretto can be a stumbling block even for rabid bel canto fans. But if you care most about virtuoso arias, zesty choruses and ardent vocal ensembles, go to “Puritani” and enjoy.