Review: Spectacular singing sparks Lyric's revival of 'I Puritani'

John von Rhein

Since 1955, when Lyric Opera mounted its first production of “I Puritani” to display Maria Callas in one of her most celebrated bel canto roles, Vincenzo Bellini’s final opera has drifted in and out of the Lyric repertory, rather like the fragile heroine Elvira’s flights between sanity and madness. The most recent time the company revived “The Puritans,” in fact, was more than 25 years ago.

But, really, there’s no point in doing so unless you can cast the soprano and tenor roles with singers fully equipped to meet the exacting demands of the composer’s long, arching lines, decorated with expressive coloratura filigree and treacherous leaps into the vocal stratosphere.

Lyric has done so impressively in its revival of “Puritani,” treating the audience to a kind of Bel Canto Super Bowl at the season’s first performance of the Bellini work on Sunday afternoon at the Lyric Opera House.

When you have a romantic duo at the level of American tenor Lawrence Brownlee and Russian soprano Albina Shagimuratova to invest Bellini’s vocal writing with their exceptional artistry, it’s easy to tune out the preposterous dramaturgy of Carlo Pepoli’s libretto. You sit back and bask in the wealth of melody that fills the score, as delivered by two of the brightest vocal discoveries of recent Lyric seasons.

Such is the elegance, grace and beauty of their singing that you actually care about the fate of Elvira Walton and Lord Arturo Talbot, lovers caught in the civil struggle between the Puritans and Royalists in 17th century England. Separated by a silly misunderstanding that could easily have been averted had cellphones existed in Oliver Cromwell’s era, they are reunited in a happy ending rare in Romantic operas of this sort.

Sandro Sequi’s production, owned by the Metropolitan Opera, was created way back in 1976 as a concert-in-costume for Joan Sutherland and Luciano Pavarotti. You find traces of that approach here in director Eric Einhorn’s revival, with choristers arranged in symmetrical clumps, marching across the stage in stiff formation and principals lining up at the footlights.

At least no revisionist nonsense intrudes on Lyric’s old-fashoned, period-respectful staging, framed by the painterly Romantic realism of Ming Cho Lee’s still-serviceable sets and Peter J. Hall’s costumes — lace collars and embroidered velvet doublets for the men, richly layered gowns for the women. Lighting designer Chris Maravich bathed the stage in russet hues out of Renaissance painting.

But you don’t go to “Puritani” for the designs or the lighting — you go for the singing. It’s to the credit of returning conductor Enrique Mazzola, one of today’s foremost masters of bel canto, that the Lyric orchestra provides so stylish a cushion of support for the singers. Only six days before the opening, Mazzola had to bow out of rehearsals to undergo emergency gall bladder surgery. You would not have guessed he had been away, given the rhythmic urgency and expansive lyrical warmth he drew from the capable orchestra and Michael Black’s disciplined chorus.

Brownlee’s performance was nothing short of a triumph, quite the finest singing of this most taxing tenor role one is likely to hear in any opera house today. His entrance aria was pure vocal gold, while his ardent Arturo dominated the third act with one virtuosic feat of vocalism after another.

The Youngstown, Ohio-born tenor sculpted the “endless melody” (to use Wagner’s term) of his music exquisitely, his tone plangent and true, his legato liquid, his top notes firm. He rose fearlessly to the daunting challenges of the final scene, capping off his portion of the ensemble with what sounded like an F above high C. the same high-wire leap Bellini wrote for the first Arturo, Giovanni Battista Rubini, in 1835.Sunday’s audience understandably went wild.

Just as it was great to have Brownlee — the vocal hero of Lyric’s 2015-16 Rossini “La Cenerentola” — back on the roster, so, too, was it wonderful to welcome back Shagimuratova, whose charismatic Lucia di Lammermoor was heard here last season.

Psychologically, Elvira is a less well-defined heroine than mad Lucy, yet the entire opera stands or falls on her and how well she’s played. Shagimuratova appeared to be saving her voice for the showpiece second-act mad scene, “Qui la voce.” Here Elvira vacillates between despair and joy, wrongly believing Arturo has abandoned her. The singer’s easy, limpid phrasing, bright sound and expressive use of ornamentation made Elvira’s plight very touching. She sang one verse of the cabaletta flat on her back, planting a kiss on the perplexed Riccardo, nice dramatic touches both.

What’s more, Shagimuratova and Brownlee showed us the lovers’ desperate passion, particularly in the reconciliation scene at the end where they lofted a unison high C.

Neither the bass role of Sir Giorgio Walton, Elvira’s kindly uncle, nor the baritone part of Sir Riccardo Forth, Arturo’s hapless rival for Elvira’s hand, is a pushover, vocally speaking, and both singers gave committed performances.

The returning Romanian singer Adrian Sampetrean, as Giorgio, commanded attention with a voice of size, reach and nobility of expression. The Ryan Opera Center star alumnus Anthony Clark Evans, as Riccardo, delivered his strongest singing of the afternoon in the rousing second-act duet in which the Puritan chiefs vowed to fight if England were attacked.

The supporting cast — all current members of the Ryan center — consisted of Lauren Decker as Queen Enrichetta, Alec Carlson as Sir Bruno Robertson and Alan Higgs as Lord Gualtiero Walton. All three singers managed well. It wasn’t their fault that their characters as written are no more than stick figures. The show, incidentally, runs to 3½ hours, including two intermissions. Don’t you dare leave before the end.

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