Bellini, Vincenzo


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.

SonnambulaVincenzo Bellini - La Sonnambula

Royal Opera House, 2011 | Daniel Oren, Marco Arturo Marelli, Andreas Leisner, Celso Albelo, Eglise Gutiérrez, Elena Xanthoudakis, Michele Pertusi, Jihoon Kim, Elizabeth Sikora | Covent Garden, London - 2nd November 2011

It’s tempting to make excuses or a rationale for the limited musical arrangements and the somewhat contrived situation that leads to a melodramatic crisis in Bellini’s La Sonnambula. Updating the period and setting it in an Alpine sanatorium in the 1950s, influenced to some extent by Thomas Mann’s ‘The Magic Mountain‘, director Marco Arturo Marelli attempts to provide some psychological depth to the work, but in reality only confuses the issue further. Like most bel canto opera, it probably just better admitting that the only real reason for its scarcely credible plotline is to provide plenty of opportunities for virtuoso singing, and on that level alone, La Sonnambula – and indeed this production of it – more than justifies its existence.

For some commentators, it’s this simplicity that is in fact the key virtue of Bellini’s approach to the work. Its two act structure is a model of dramatic form, but it also reflects the simple attitudes that exist in its village-life setting in regard to the central issues, where a young woman Amina, is accused of infidelity to her fiancé Elvino on the eve of her wedding, having been found in the bedroom of a recently arrived stranger. Unaware that it’s her habit of sleepwalking that has led to her unfortunate night-time excursion, the opera’s theme then is based around the simple notion of purity as seen through the eyes of smalltown moralists who purport to uphold it yet question it in its sincerest form in Amina.

Judged purely on musical terms, you have to admit that Bellini gets it perfectly right. There’s not too much in the way of ambiguity in the characterisation or in the musical arrangements that underscore this straightforward conflict. Provided, that is, that you have a singer in the role of Amina with the kind of voice that can suggest simplicity and purity wronged and give it an air of authenticity in the ringing high notes and coloratura that express her innermost love for her husband-to-be and the sincerity of her intentions. And when you consider that this is a role for a Callas or a Sutherland, you can understand why it’s not as easy to pull off as it sounds.

Sonnambula

Fortunately, the Royal Opera House had two strong leads in Eglise Gutiérrez and Celso Albelo, both of whom were capable of reaching the extraordinary vocal challenges of the opera, even if they were both a little lacking in the charisma and the acting demands required to give their roles the kind of depth that Marco Arturo Marelli was undoubtedly looking for. There have been some criticisms of Gutiérrez’s Italian diction and the fact that her voice became increasingly thin on the high notes, both of which are true. Normally, I’d be inclined to regard such questions of technique as secondary in importance to the overall characterisation, but in the case of bel canto opera, characterisation is indeed subsidiary to the technique and is all about the singing. There are few enough singers in the history of opera, let alone around today, who are capable of meeting both demands in this kind of work however, so expectations surely need to be adjusted, and personally, I was impressed by how both leads met the challenges presented by this particular opera. No excuses need be made however for Elena Xanthoudakis as Lisa or Michele Pertusi as Count Rodolfo, both dramatically more convincing and dynamic as characters, both singing impressively, with real feeling for the work.

The use of chorus was also brilliantly employed. Choral work is not usually something you associate with bel canto opera – at least not until Verdi found a way of harnessing its possibilities as a means of popular expression – but it’s used here in just such a manner as the voice of public opinion, who watch and comment approvingly or disparagingly on everything that develops. Accordingly, they change with the wind, from “How could she, the faithless wench!” (I’m paraphrasing) and “How can this be anything but what it seems?” to “We always knew she was pure and true”. It’s realistic to the situation, but inevitably feels a little overstated, working contrary to the director’s intentions of giving the piece a realistic psychological or sociological treatment. So too, unfortunately, does the role of Elvino, whose change of heart and preparations to summarily dump Amina on their wedding day and marry Lisa instead is not only questionable, but his lack of faith in Amina is surely unforgivable.

A lot then depends on the dramatic twist to make it all work and fall into place, since it not only precipitates the drama, but also ultimately resolves it. Sleepwalking is an interesting notion that is worth exploring – the sleepwalker acting out unconscious inner thoughts and desires – but Marelli’s staging isn’t really able to do anything with it here in La Sonnambula, or make it any more dramatically convincing. There are no true human characteristics realistically expressed, no great revelations opened up, not even any real sympathy or comprehension shown along the way. Everything is as it appears and purely reactive to outward appearances.

Sonnambula

Which in a way sums up not only La Sonnambula, but this particular production as well. The score and the treatment here are perfectly in touch with its subject, the stage design impressive to look at and well-suited to the drama (if it isn’t able nonetheless to make the most of Amina’s famous perilous sleepwalking scene), and there’s genuine skill and talent evident on every level, but ultimately there’s no great depth to the work and it’s a disservice to the opera, the singers and to the audience to attempt to suggest that there’s anything more to La Sonnambula than is apparent on its enjoyably exquisite but hollow surface. That however, is more than good enough.