Lyric Opera's revival of Bellini's 'I Puritani' continues through February
by Natalia Dagenhart
"The French had all gone mad; there were such noise and such shouts that they themselves were astonished at being so carried away … In a word, my dear Florimo, it was an unheard of thing, and since Saturday, Paris has spoken of it in amazement," wrote famous Italian composer Vincenzo Bellini to his friend Francesco Florimo in 1835, shortly after the premiere of his last opera "I Puritani."
History repeats itself. Today, "I Puritani" is as successful as it was almost 200 years ago.
Lyric Opera of Chicago is happy to present a beautiful production of "I Puritani," which successfully opened on Sunday, Feb. 4 and will run until Wednesday, Feb. 28.
Operas written by this great composer are extremely colorful and technically challenging, which requires a carefully selected cast. Bellini is known for his long, polished and flowing melodic lines that can be performed only by highly trained and extremely skillful soloists. Therefore, if the right singers couldn't be found, most opera theaters wouldn't even produce Bellini's operas.
Lyric Opera of Chicago is lucky to welcome back to its stage some of the best singers of our time that are able to emphasize Bellini's unique talent by clothing it with their extraordinary vocal skills, warm artistry and extremely touching professional presentation.
"I've always treasured 'I Puritani' for the glorious opportunities it offers the principal artists, especially the leading tenor and soprano," noted Anthony Freud, general director, president and CEO at Lyric Opera of Chicago. "You need only listen to Arturo's soaring entrance aria or Elvira's heart-rending mad scene to realize how extraordinary, elegant and expressive Bellini's melodies can be. More than perhaps any other work, it's 'I Puritani' that is most often described as 'the essence of bel canto'."
The Italian term "bel canto" stands for "beautiful singing" or "beautiful song," which is a great way to describe this opera. The libretto prepared by Carlo Pepoli is based on the historic drama in three acts called "Têtes rondes et cavaliers." Confusing and full of romantic and political disturbances, this plot uncovers a sweeping drama in seventeenth-century England. It describes historical events between the Royalists and the Puritans at the time of the Civil War.
Of course, the center line of the plot is a love story. It unfolds between Elvira, daughter of Lord Gualtiero Walton, the Puritan governor of Plymouth fortress, and Lord Arturo Talbot, who is a cavalier. Their wedding day is coming. Queen Enrichetta, who is confined in the fortress by Cromwell's orders, gets help from Talbot and escapes with him. It makes Elvira believe that Arturo is unfaithful and causes her to become mad and distraught. Talbot is arrested and ordered to be shot, but suddenly a messenger arrives with the news of Cromwell's victory and the pardon of all prisoners. Arturo and Elvira are reunited and happy. Love wins.
The last time Lyric Opera of Chicago presented "I Puritani" was over 25 years ago, and now it is happy to revive this great masterpiece and is proud to present the best cast for this production.
The opening performance of "I Puritani" Feb. 4 at Lyric Opera was bathed in ovations. This opera is not frequently performed as it is extremely difficult to find the right soloists. There are only a few tenors in the world who can sing the complicated role of Arturo, and American tenor Lawrence Brownlee is one of them. He masterly presented extremely long high notes that build into genius pathos and expressive melodic lines. For his undoubted talent and brilliant vocal skills this gloriously elegant musician is sought after by major companies worldwide.
In the role of Arturo, Lawrence touched the Chicago audience with his strong and sincere voice and extremely artistic presentation. The tenor has previously triumphed in this role at the Metropolitan Opera, the Zurich Opera House, Seattle Opera, and Tivolis Koncertsalen (Copenhagen). Thus, the appearance of this internationally acclaimed soloist on the stage of Lyric Opera of Chicago in the role of Arturo was greatly anticipated.
The Chicago public knows Brownlee from his previous successful performances at Lyric Opera as Ramiro in "Cinderella," one of the most stupendous debuts in the company's history, and then as Charlie in the Lyric Unlimited production of Charlie Parker's "Yardbird," a role written especially for him.
"I feel very comfortable singing with Lawrence," said Russian coloratura soprano Albina Shagimuratova, who performs the role of Elvira. "We have experience singing together in the past, and it has always been a great pleasure for me. We understand each other and feel each other as soloists very deeply. Lawrence always supports me and I feel chemistry with him, which doesn't happen with every singing partner. I praise Anthony Freud, whom I call my 'musical father,' for his great talent in finding the best casts for the Lyric Opera of Chicago productions. He always makes sure that the voices of the soloists match each other and sound together in a harmonious fusion."
It is Albina's debut performing in "I Puritani," and she pursues this role responsibly and enthusiastically. "This opera has to be performed on a very high level," said Albina. "The role of Elvira is very hard and consists of endless technically challenging passages. The music is spectacular and is very pleasing to perform. However, I am concentrated on mastering the highest vocal presentation of it. I feel responsible for presenting my part on a superb level. Over its history, this opera has been performed by such talented soloists as Luciano Pavarotti, Montserrat Caballé and many others, and our goal now is to keep its world-class level. I feel honored that I have an opportunity to demonstrate the highest vocal standards to the young generations."
Albina caught everyone's attention the moment she appeared on the stage. The vibrant texture and the iridescent quality of her voice, enriched by extreme vocal mobility, impressed the audience and were greeted with delight. This internationally celebrated singer was able to demonstrate the most touching features of Elvira's personality and the whole spectrum of her vivid emotions using incredible vocal techniques. Popular for her iconic coloratura roles in 19th-century Italian opera, Albina is a perfect fit for presenting a wealth of Bellini's colorful melodies and pathos, which she performed on the highest world level.
The role of Riccardo Forth, who is in love with Elvira but is rejected by her for Arturo, was performed by brilliant American baritone Anthony Clark Evans. His steady, rich and sensitive voice demonstrated the whole spectrum of Riccardo's feelings. Technically superb, this native of Kentucky soloist is a Ryan Opera Center alumnus and is well-known around the United States. His spectacular voice has been heard in such prestigious concert halls and opera theaters as Carnegie Hall, Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco Opera, and others. At Lyric Opera of Chicago, his talent has been presented in 10 roles since the 2013-14 season, most recently in the role of Gregorio in "Romeo and Juliet" and as Simon Thibault in "Bel Canto."
Another great singer who was carefully chosen by Anthony Freud for this production is Romanian bass Adrian Sâmpetrean who presented Elvira's uncle, Sir Giorgio Walton. This internationally famous soloist has a great list of roles that he successfully performed all over the world, including such prestigious theaters as La Scala, Moscow's Bolshoi Theatre and many others. His expressive and tender voice combined with his masterful presentation of Elvira's uncle Giorgio impressed the audience. Working in ensemble with other soloists, with the orchestra and the chorus, Adrian demonstrated his extremely high professional level.
The role of Queen Enrichetta was brilliantly performed by a second-year Ryan Opera Center member Contralto Lauren Decker. Her rich, tender and colorful voice has been previously heard at Lyric Opera in the role of Schwertleite in "Die Walküre," Giovanna in "Rigoletto," and Third Lady in "The Magic Flute." American tenor Alec Carlson, who successfully portrayed Sir Bruno Robertson, is also one of the most favorite singers at Lyric Opera of Chicago. Known for his expressive singing manner and superb vocal skills, Alec found the best way to demonstrate the character of Sir Bruno. The role of Elvira's father, Lord Gualtiero Walton, was beautifully presented by American Bass-Baritone Alan Higgs, current member of Ryan Opera Center. His enthusiastic singing and expressive voice impressed the audience.
It is important to note the role of the Lyric Opera Chorus. Prepared by Michael Black, the Chorus appears in "I Puritani" from the first moments of the opera and provides extraordinary support to the soloists during the entire production. "The Chorus at Lyric Opera consists of a great number of talented young singers, and they had to study their parts for the first time. They did a great job," noted Albina.
It is also extremely important to underline the fantastic work performed by Enrique Mazzola, Italian conductor, who carries in his blood the understanding of how the Italian operas should be performed and deeply feels their nature. Under his baton, the Lyric Opera of Chicago Orchestra performed this complicated, yet extremely gorgeous and touching opera on an extremely high level. The orchestration in "I Puritani" surpassed Bellini's previous works; nevertheless, it was presented by the Orchestra in a brilliant manner.
Feb. 4, 2018 is forever written in the history of Lyric Opera of Chicago for its fantastic opening of "I Puritani." If Bellini would have been present that day at that production and saw the standing ovation at the end, he would have said: "The Chicagoans had all gone mad; there were such noise and such shouts that they themselves were astonished at being so carried away … In a word, it was an unheard of thing, and since Sunday, Chicago has spoken of it in amazement!"