Bel Canto Version of
English Civil War
Maria Agresta as Elvira in “I Puritani.” Photo: Opéra National de Paris/Andrea Messana
Vincenzo Bellini’s 11th and final opera, I Puritani, has strong Parisian roots, having been premiered at the city’s Théâtre-Italien in January 1835. The Sicilian composer died near Paris of acute intestinal inflammation only a few months later, at the age of 33. Given that he wrote such masterpieces of the bel canto repertoire as La Sonnambula and Norma, it is sobering to think what he might have produced had he lived longer. This new production of I Puritani by Laurent Pelly, conducted by Michele Mariotti (who is barely older than the composer was when he wrote the work), at the Bastille Opera does ample justice to Bellini’s prodigious talents.
I Puritani, with a libretto by Count Carlo Pepoli based on a French work, Têtes Rondes et Cavaliers by Jacques-François Ancelot and Joseph Xavier Saintine – itself based on a novel by Sir Walter Scott (as most romantic Italian operas seem to be) – is set against the backdrop of the Puritan-Royalist conflicts in 17th-century England. Elvira, daughter of Cromwell supporter Lord Valton (the Italianized or misspelt names are a particular delight), is engaged against her will to the Puritan Sir Riccardo Forth but is in love with Lord Arturo Talbot, a Cavalier loyal to the Stuart monarchy. When Arturo, in spite of his great love for her, leaves her at the altar to help a mysterious woman (who turns out to be King Charles I’s widow, Queen Enrichetta) escape imprisonment, Elvira’s reason abandons her at various intervals. Why limit yourself to a single mad scene, as is demanded in bel canto opera, when you can have two or three?
As wildly improbable as some of the plotting may be (the opera’s denouement is particularly sudden and implausible), the music itself is glorious. Not only is there the required virtuoso high singing by soprano and tenor (performed here with precision and panache by Maria Agresta as Elvira and Dmitri Korchak as Arturo), but Bellini also includes duets for bass and baritone (the music for Valton and Riccardo, robustly sung by the Polish singers Wojtek Smilek and Mariusz Kwiecien, is exceptional) and some vivid writing for the chorus, simply but beautifully choreographed in their Puritan attire in this production. Only the somewhat thin-voiced Andreea Soare as Enrichetta is a disappointment.
Mariotti directs the Paris National Opera Orchestra with great energy, always taking care to shape the orchestral lines in an authentic bel canto style. I was sitting just behind the conductor, and it was hard not to be swept away by his enthusiasm as he coaxed and cajoled his instrumentalists, even though his sharp intakes of breath and not entirely tuneful humming proved a diverting counterpoint to the stage action.
The stage set (a transformable lacy steel structure, which at moments traps Elvira like a caged bird) is starkly simple but always visually effective, especially at the beginning of the final act, when the kaleidoscopic lighting effects on the revolving set reflect Elvira’s mental state particularly well.
If Italian bel canto is your thing, make sure not to miss this production. And even if it isn’t your thing, you will find plenty to enjoy.
Opéra National de Paris: Place de la Bastille, 75012 Paris. Métro: Bastille. Tel.: 0 892 89 90 90 or + 33 (0)1 71 25 24 23 (from abroad). Remaining performances: December 12, 14, 17 and 19 at 7:30pm. Tickets: €5-€180. www.operadeparis.fr
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