Allowing a Puritan to Marry for Love

From The New York Times, April 18 2014

If you are going to savor the Metropolitan Opera’s welcome revival of Bellini’s “I Puritani,” it is best to put out of mind that this 1976 production was mounted for Joan Sutherland, Luciano Pavarotti, Sherrill Milnes and James Morris. Such an astounding four-star cast is not likely to come along again anytime soon.

Opera is a singer-driven art form, of course. But a bel canto masterpiece like “I Puritani,” Bellini’s final work, is especially dependent upon beautiful singing, as the very name of the style suggests. The good news here is that the Met’s cast for this revival, which opened on Thursday night, offers impressive performances from two excellent artists.

In a much-anticipated Met debut, the Russian soprano Olga Peretyatko sings Elvira, the daughter of the commander of a stronghold of Puritans encamped in a fortress near Plymouth during the English Civil War. Ms. Peretyatko is increasingly a go-to choice for touchstone coloratura soprano roles in opera houses around the world. It’s clear why. A lovely woman with a beguiling stage presence, she has a clear, shimmering voice with a bright but never hard-edged sound and the technique to dispatch runs and roulades with comfortable agility.

Elvira loves Arturo (Lord Arthur Talbot), a Royalist, which makes for problems, of course. But her father, softened up by Elvira’s loving uncle Giorgio, agrees to let Elvira marry for love. Arturo is a famously difficult role, though you would not guess this from the stylish, technically accomplished performance of the American tenor Lawrence Brownlee. His sound has warmth and bloom, with a quick, ardent vibrato. He soars easily up to ringing top notes, high C’s and even higher. Mr. Brownlee’s singing is a model of bel canto style. Sometimes you want more impetuosity and daring from him. But Arturo brings out his best.

This drably traditional Sandro Sequi production, though a dusty relic from an era when directors did not trouble themselves over a concept, does the job. The choristers take their assigned places in rows facing the audience and mostly just stay in the background, an approach that at least clears the stage so that the principals can seize it.

That is just what Anna Netrebko did when the Met last presented “I Puritani” during the 2006-7 season. She was like a Method actor in the midst of the inert performances surrounding her overall, especially during her riveting mad scene in Act II. When she learns that Arturo, on the eve of their wedding, has left the encampment with a mysterious woman (actually the widow of King Charles, a queen in danger for her life), Elvira loses her mind for a spell. Ms. Netrebko, singing with throbbing richness and charisma, was a haunted presence, at one point writhing on her back, her arms dangling over the edge of the stage.

Ms. Peretyatko did nothing so viscerally dramatic. The most original touch in her portrayal was the way she toyed with a veil that covered her head during the first part of the mad scene. Ms. Peretyatko’s voice, if not that large, carries beautifully. Her Elvira may lack some depth and intensity. Still, opera fans should relish the sheer beauty and grace of her singing.

The dynamic baritone Mariusz Kwiecien, scheduled to sing the crucial role of Riccardo, the Puritan colonel who loves Elvira and had hoped to marry her, was ill. Taking his place was the Belarussian baritone Maksim Aniskin, in a respectable Met debut. His voice is basically warm and healthy, though on this night a little bland and colorless. The bass Michele Pertusi brought vocal and dramatic dignity to the role of Elvira’s uncle, who is like a second father.

The young Italian conductor Michele Mariotti, the principal conductor of Teatro Comunale in Bologna, did not draw notably crisp or energetic playing from the Met Orchestra. Still, he brought shape and suppleness to the music, and, most important, allowed the singers plenty of leeway for lyrical expression.

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