PuritaniVincenzo Bellini - I Puritani

De Nederlandse Opera 2009 | Mariola Cantarero, John Osborn, Scott Hendrix, Riccardo Zanellato, Fredrika Brillembourg, Daniel Borowski, Gregorio Gonzalez | Opus Arte

Although it’s set during a period of considerable interest in English history - the Interregnum that takes in the conflict between the Cromwell’s Roundheads and Royalists loyal to the Charles I and the Stuarts - the libretto for Bellini’s I Puritani makes little use of the historical circumstances but rather, not surprisingly for an Italian bel canto opera, merely uses it as a backdrop for a story of romantic intrigue. If the libretto follows a well-worn generic line in this respect, I Puritani - Bellini’s last work before his early death - is however rather more interesting musically, having more in common with Verdi than Rossini or Donizetti and showing the composer at his most imaginative and inspired. Despite the weaknesses in the libretto, the opera is not just a situation for a series of arias and cabalettas, but shows rather greater musical attention paid to the characterisation and situation, and it’s particularly notable for its strong chorus work.

It’s fortunate then that there is great emphasis and attention paid to this musical aspect in the De Nederlandse production from 2009, but effort is made in other areas of the production in an attempt to make the work a little stronger and more coherent that it might otherwise be. There’s not a great deal one can do with the limitations of the plot, which amounts to little more than a historical romance, and a not very imaginative one at that. The central conflict at the heart of the work is less that of civil war opposition of ideologies, religion or allegiance to the crown as much as a romantic tussle for the hand of Elvira, the daughter of a prominent puritan clergyman. Her father has bowed to her own wishes to marry her beloved Arturo (Arthur Talbot), despite having promised her to Riccardo (Richard Forth).

Just before they are about to be married however, Arturo - who has royalist sympathies - takes advantage of an opportunity to rescue a prisoner about to be executed when he recognises her to be the queen, Enrichetta (Henrietta). Riccardo lets them escape, happy to see his rival disappear and be labelled a traitor, but Elvira is more devastated by what she sees as a betrayal, since Arturo has absconded with a prisoner who uses her own wedding veil as a disguise to help her escape. In the great operatic tradition, she of course goes mad, and her delusion persists when Arturo returns and tries to explain his actions and reaffirm his love for her, causing her to be responsible for his death.

The historical setting heightening the notions of romantic betrayal to the level of melodrama, replete with obligatory mad scene for the leading diva, I Puritani would seem to designed to fit the standard bel canto template, but Bellini’s score is far more varied and darker in tone than is customary, and the vocal writing isn’t there merely to show off the range of the soprano. Even so, it’s still a difficult opera to make work dramatically, and it does have singing challenges of its own. The apparent weaknesses and insubstantiality of the plot are however given something of a boost here by conductor Guiliano Carella returning to the original Paris score of 1835 and reinstating a number of scenes - some of them quite significant - that fill out the detail in the characterisation, and demonstrate the qualities of Bellini’s writing even further. Assisted by a very strong visual concept of the set designs by Es Devlin and by the stage direction of Francisco Negrin, the De Nederlandse production would be in contention for one of the best productions of this work but for the singing, which is good in most parts, but far from the standard needed to really lift this work to the level that is aspired to here.

Visually, the production design strikes an excellent balance between period (or theatrical period) in the costumes and a more modern conceptual approach to the stage design. Made up of rows of sheets that in Act I create ramparts for the soldiers in one scene before rolling smoothly into another where they show a committee of puritans in rows, there’s a wonderful sense of fluidity and continuity created that establishes the somewhat confusing political context and the drama in the most effective and eye-catching manner possible. Act II and III by contrast are relatively static, but again find strong visual ways to represent both the court that pronounces Arturo’s fate and reflect the horror that has afflicted Elvira’s mind. Conceptually, emphasis is also given to words, the steel sheets marked by bullet-holes and rivets that actually form a Braille background (the words of the Bible, I believe, in Dutch), with projections of words of passion and madness from the libretto projected in the latter scenes.

Despite efforts to make this a dramatically strong presentation, the singing isn’t quite as consistent. Mariola Cantarero is a little high and light for the dramatic range required for Elvira and consequently doesn’t always make the mark. She’s at her best in Act II, in her scenes of mad delusion, delivering a lovely ‘O rendetemi la speme‘, but her acting is limited elsewhere, and her high notes tend towards a screech. John Osborn is a terrific lyrical tenor who I like a lot, and he is excellent here throughout as Arturo, but he seems to me to find the role dramatically limiting and doesn’t really succeed in bringing the character to life. There’s a little more to get your teeth into in the role of Riccardo, but Scott Hendrix has a tendency to chew the scenery, and considering it’s made of steel here, that’s quite a mouthful. He gives it everything of course and sings the role well, but there’s more aggression here than art. The other roles are similarly variable never quite entirely holding it together either dramatically or vocally, although Fredrika Brillembourg is the best here as Enrichetta.

If the main roles don’t stand out as they might, the support they are given by the Chorus of the De Nederlandse Opera is superb, as is the work of the Amsterdam orchestra, who deliver an impassioned performance that is attuned to the dramatic content, directed from the pit by Guiliano Carella who clearly has a lot of love for the work and very specific ideas about how it should be presented. That passion comes through in the extra features on the Blu-ray disc, which look at the rehearsals and consider the variations of the Paris version of I Puritani in interesting detail. The quality of the recording is also of a very high standard, with a clear image and strong, detailed High-Definition audio tracks in PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1. The BD is all-region, BD50 dual layer, 1080i full HD, with subtitles in English, French, German and Dutch. The booklet contains an essay on the work and a full synopsis.