Last Saturday, Seattle Opera presented its first production of Vincenzo Bellini's last opera, I Puritani (1835). Despite a libretto that continually forces its singers into ludicrous confrontations, this opera is Bellini's most musically resplendent work, a feast of complex melody. The Paris premiere was sung by Grisi, Rubini, Tamburini, and Lablache, and Bellini composed the four major roles of the opera with these famous artists in mind. Herein lie the difficulties for today's singers.
Naturally enough, there have been great changes in singing styles and techniques over the intervening years, and these have been partially driven by audience tastes. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, opera fans preferred soft high notes and a classical elegance of technique. For example, the tenor Giovanni Battista Rubini (1794-1854) was the toast of Paris with his extended upper range for which he used a quiet head voice. Sometime in the later 19th century, audiences became enamored of tenors with full voice high notes, producing sounds that, in the immortal words of George Bernard Shaw, "could cause a battleship to recoil from a reef."
This change in taste was largely responsible for turning many opera performances into a blood sport. Consequently the tenor role of Arturo in Puritani is now impossible for all but a few. The need for greater volume has also made it hard to find singers who can produce a truly seamless legato (smooth linking of notes), which as Speight Jenkins points up in his informative program notes, is essential for Bellini.
The good news is that Seattle Opera has assembled a presentable quartet of singers for this production. Norah Amsellem (Elvira), Lawrence Brownlee (Arturo), Mariusz Kwiecien (Riccardo), and John Relyea (Giorgio) all had their strong points, but one singer clearly rose above the rest (in more ways than one) and that was Brownlee. From his first entrance there was that telling hush in the hall that signals a special voice and with his aria, A te o cara, this quality was confirmed. His lovely sound, even production, musical phrasing, and, yes, fine legato made his successful forays into the Rubini stratosphere unimportant. He tired a bit in the taxing third act but firmly established himself as a bel canto star.
Kwiecien and Relyea have firm, healthy voices but lack the velvet elegance and smooth long lines needed to fully present Bellini's melodies. Relyea came close in the beautiful aria at the start of the second half. Riccardo is admittedly a role with fewer opportunities but Kwiecien didn't fully seize his chance with Ah! per siempre in the first act. They both delivered the goods with ease in the act 2 finale, Suoni la tromba.
Amsellem's Elvira was very uneven. After a substandard first act in which she was overwhelmed by Relyea in their duet and served up a drab polacca, she rallied and sang a convincing Qui la voce, the opera's most beautiful piece, and did some lovely lyrical singing in the rest of the opera. Her Vien, diletto was too careful to sparkle. Sprinkled throughout the evening were some unlovely high notes of indeterminate pitch.
The conductor, Edoardo MÃÂ¼ller, has conducted this opera all over the world and understands the subtle style of Bellini. Some of his tempos were a bit too slow for the singers to sustain properly. The orchestra acquitted itself well, especially the horn quartets, both off-stage and on. Mark Robbins did a fine job with the tricky horn solo in Act 2. There is some good choral music in this opera, and the chorus sang with plenty of force and beauty of sound.
It certainly is hard for a stage director to make sense of the dramaturgy of Puritani, but Linda Brovsky did little to humanize the characters, settling for cliched, broad gestures in silent movie style. The handling of Elvira's come-and-go madness was puzzling. She seemed quite gaga from the onset which inevitably raised the question: Why is everyone in the opera enchanted by a girl with a frontal lobe made of Swiss cheese? Surely she needs to be the sweet thing next door until misfortune strikes, and the various onsets of delusion need to be clarified.
The familiar costumes of Peter J. Hall looked fine, and the massive set by Bob Dahlstrom is a powerful presence. Yet when the curtain rose on the huge staircase than dominates the stage I knew I was in for another evening full of people traipsing up and down the stairs. I realize it's a practical way of placing the chorus, but they might sing with better ensemble if they weren't watching their feet at all times. When Elvira made her Act 2 entrance on the stairs, singing and veiled, I couldn't help but wish she had allowed Riccardo to help her out.
To place the evening in context, this performance compared well with the acclaimed one at the Metropolitan Opera with Anna Netrebko, an enchanting presence with a fine voice but technically unable to cope with Elvira's coloratura. On balance the three men, especially Brownlee, were vocally superior (Relyea also sang Giorgio in the Met production).
So there should be no doubt: Bellini advocates will love this Puritani. Those who have not acquired that taste should take this opportunity to hear some absolutely splendid music and view a rising star in Brownlee. That he is a graduate of the Seattle Opera Young Artists program is another feather in the local cap.