in: Reviews

May 4, 2014

“BLO’s I Puritani: A Beautiful Madness”

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Sarah Coburn and John Tessier (Eric Antoniu photo)

Sarah Coburn and John Tessier (Eric Antoniu photo)

Boston Lyric Opera presented its final opera of the season, a vibrant and exciting production of Vincenzo Bellini’s last work, I Puritani on Friday at the Schubert Theater. The libretto by Carlo Pepoli tells the story of a troubled romance between members of opposing sides of the 17th century English civil war and provides a decent framework on which Bellini strung some of his most beautiful bel canto melodies. Yet the opera is more than just a vehicle; likely because it was also written for a French audience (it premiered in Paris in 1835) I Puritani is also Bellini’s most sophisticated opera in terms of thematic recall and coloristic scoring. For this production, the BLO wisely sought to build on an established success by reuniting tenor John Tessier and soprano Sarah Coburn. Both singers have moved on to great things (particularly in Vienna) since their last performance together here in 2012 with the BLO’s production of Rossini’s I barbiere di Siviglia.

The central role of the opera is, of course, Elvira. The fragile beauty whose seemingly unrequited love and forced separation from the male lead Arturo drives her into a prototypical Bellinian insanity. Coburn’s performance of this part was remarkable. Her interpretation of the famous polonaise “Son vergin vezzosa” gave a sort of forced innocence that served to heighten her character’s precipice of naiveté as the wedding day approached. Her voice projected a fine intonation and intelligent musicianship disguised by its natural agility. Her petite stature, as a visual reflection of her character’s fragility, was emphasized in her duet with her Giorgio, played by the lanky bass baritone Paul Whelan. Whelan’s instrument was remarkably clear throughout its range; he provided, both aurally and visually, a sweet, powerful and awkward opposition to Coburn’s natural grace. His giddy excitement at her happiness balanced his sorrow at her madness.

For his part, Tessier’s Arturo also enjoyed a strong showing. His voice’s forthright clarity and tone ably expressed his royalist character’s chivalric sense of morality juxtaposed with the burnished baritone of his competitor Riccardo played by Troy Cook. If Coburn owned the show (she is onstage more and her character’s development is more interesting) Tessier owned the coloratura, absolutely nailing Bellini’s orbiting melodic lines as they passed far up into the stratosphere, including the incredibly high line in “Credeasi, misera.” Ultimately, however, it was when Tessier and Coburn sang together that the opera reached its best, even if they were not onstage at the time.

Indeed, many of the most powerful moments of I puritani contain dis-embodied or only remembered voices. In most of Elvira’s entrances her voice is heard before she is seen. In the mad scene “Qui la voce sua soave” she is haunted by the memory of Arturo’s voice and at the end, in the scene in which they are reunited, it is her offstage voice that Arturo recognizes, singing a song he once taught her. This leads, after an interruption, to a reminiscence of Arturo’s first cavatina that brings the two lovers back together, Arturo back from a political exile and Elvira back from a psychological exile, culminating with an exquisite rendering of the duet “Nel mirarti un solo istanta.” The moment requires as extraordinary vocal dynamic restraint in order to bring off this musical, dramatic and emotional crescendo; Coburn and Tessier’s performance here was simply breathtaking. Obviously, David Angus’s equally nuanced conducting played a large part in the scene’s success. His subtle yet eloquent and warm rendering of Bellini’s delicate web of reminiscences and orchestration was a sine qua non of this success.

Much has been written about the mad divas of Bellini’s operas, indeed, even the program notes by Dr. Magda Romanska provide a nice précis of the madwoman as historical trope, correctly citing that “Trapped in a man’s world, Victorian women often escaped into madness, which was viewed as the only permissible way for them to speak the truth and to solve the tensions and pressures of their untenable position.” Shakespeare’s Ophelia is then referenced as the archetype for this character. While this description of how these women deal with the confines of their madness is correct, it provides the character more agency than they really possess—they do not “escape” into madness, but rather are forced there by the oppressive society around them. Further, there is another cost to this madness in that it also represents a terrible loss for the society. This is the opera’s moral tale and probably the reason it is called I puritani, instead of Arturo e Elvira.

Chorusmaster Michelle Alexander clearly recognized this trait. Likely building off of Bellini’s own description of the opera as composed with “a touch of military robustness and something of a Puritan severity” Alexander placed the two lovers in a vise between the armored and aggressive male soldier’s chorus and the passive but equally aggressive female Puritan chorus (dressed in an emblematic scarlet red). It was, at first, curious to see the Puritan chorus join Elvira’s wedding festivities in stern expression, but in hindsight it is clear that for Alexander this stern expression was akin to Marcellus’s “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” Something was wrong with Elvira’s celebration, but what that was exactly is left, at first, unclear. Mention should also go to Gail Astrid Buckley’s costumes, particularly for Elvira’s tattered, mad wedding dress, lined (as is her madness) with the scarlet judgment of the Puritans.

Production image (Eric Antoniu photo)

Production image (Eric Antoniu photo)

Overall, the opera is an outstanding success. The only suggestion I have is to ignore Riccardo’s actions in the very last moments. For some reason the BLO has created a rather ridiculous tradition for itself in which it alters these masterworks to increase the level of immediate graphic violence and shock value (Senta cuts her own throat, Rigoletto guts his dying daughter, a shepherd boy mops up grey matter and in I puritani Riccardo stabs Arturo in the back as the curtain descends). These changes are not edgy, they are boring. One wishes that they would have enough respect and confidence in the quality of their own productions that they would leave these gimmicks out.

Even as the BLO winds down its 2013-2014 season, I puritani plays at the Schubert through next weekend, it is ramping up for next year. Billed as a “season of unforgettable leading ladies” next season will feature productions of chestnuts like La Traviata and Don Giovanni as well as Swiss composer Frank Martin’s retelling of the Tristan tale The Love Potion and Janáček’s Kátya Kabonová. In all, I would have to say that if next year’s ladies are as good as this year’s, Boston is in for a treat.

Joseph E. Morgan is a PhD graduate of Brandeis University, where he studied early German romantic opera. He lives and teaches in the Boston area.

13 Comments

  1. Since when does the chorusmaster make staging decisions? While Michelle Alexander (BLO’s talented chorus master) was undoubtedly responsible for the musical preparation of the chorus, staging decisions were surely made by the stage director – in this case, Crystal Manich – who receives no mention in this review whatsoever. Very odd, indeed…

    Comment by Michael Beattie — May 4, 2014 at 10:46 pm

  2. Oh gosh, that’s not so odd, just a simple mistake. Both choruses sang so very well that I wanted to acknowledge the chorusmaster–especially the way they sang their parts with the kind of aggression that Bellini might have hoped for (I had originally written “aural vise” but cut “aural,” that’s my mistake) As for Crystal Manich, her direction of the Puritan chorus to be stern at the outset was quite inspired and does deserve mention. Her work with you on Rinaldo in Pittsburgh last year garnered decent reviews so it is not surprising that she would perform as well here. However, I do wonder if, as stage director, she was the one who suggested that Riccardo should stab Arturo in the back at the very end?

    Comment by Joseph E. Morgan — May 4, 2014 at 11:25 pm

  3. I attended the Friday 2 May performance and sat cheaply in the top balcony. Sound on Friday was uneven in the earlier part of the performance; since this was the first time with a real audience this may have been a “shakedown” cruise so to speak. Had heard parts of I Puritani before but never straight through so was looking forward to seeing the work as a dramatic whole; OperaBoston’s “Lucrezia Borgia” back in 2006 made me realize I LIKED Bel Canto. The staging concept got in the way (reminded me of their “Idomeneo” a few years ago which was tolerable if one ignored the staging) so had to put up with/ignore it and concentrate on the music’s effect and its performance. Plotwise I Puritani is no Norma or Lucrezia Borgia so the music HAS to carry the story. Elvira and Arturo were a matched pair but some of the others…
    Since I have brought up staging BLO has had past problems with how they do things. Idomeneo with its puzzling marine “festival”. (The late lamented OperaBoston made fewer mistakes of that sort tho’ they did stage a strange “Der Freischuetz”.) Now in “Hollaender” Senta is supposed to die and the convention of having Senta and the Dutchman reappear above the tumult came later; BLO’s Carmen did work for me. Interestingly it can be argued that this avant-garde approach to opera is done better now than it was when Sarah Caldwell was in her prime in the 1960’s but she did not allow her staging to get in the way of the libretto’s plot.
    Which brings up the stunner of this production of I Puritani, Riccardo’s knifing Arturo in the back at the very last chord. Immediate curtain. No applause; the audience sat in stunned silence for seconds until the curtain rose again. Only then was there any applause which was muted at first. I resolved to hiss Riccardo for his uncalled-for act (and maybe his singing; Arturo’s was better) but had a problem with which man was him. (There were three men dressed alike in this production and I had difficulty telling who was who unless the “cheat sheet” subtitles gave hints; memo for future productions, BLO, differentiate your performers better, maybe color-coding.)
    And while you’re at it–READ THE LIBRETTO!!

    Comment by Nathan Redshield — May 5, 2014 at 2:02 am

  4. Nobody has mentioned the huge cut at the end of the first act. The lengthy first act finale of PURITANI was one of Bellini’s grandest concepts, yet conductor and stage director saw fit to lop off the entire stretta section which is its musically logical (and necessary)conclusion.
    The stabbing at the end did make some audience members gasp, but how cheesy, especially since it doesn’t in the least comport with the music Bellini composed for the last moments.
    Yet the most distressing thing about the Sunday matinee was that the upper balcony where I sat, was three quarters empty ! This is a company that clearly has some ongoing artistic issues, but are they having financial ones as well ? A Sunday matinee should have easily sold out !

    Comment by Jim Eisenberg — May 5, 2014 at 9:46 am

  5. I’m going next Sunday and I want there to be many seats available from which to choose.

    Comment by Laurence Glavin — May 5, 2014 at 6:09 pm

  6. At the performance on Friday May 9 the audience didn’t applaud “Son vergin vezzosa” despite a full stop by the orchestra. I thought it was well delivered, but made the mistake of waiting for someone else to start the applause. Did the connoisseurs find fault with it?

    As for Riccardo stabbing Arturo, if we’re going to have unnecessary bits like that, why not have either Elvira or Giorgio then kill Riccardo? It would have made sense: Elvira in grief and anger, or Giorgio as punishment for Riccardo’s violation of his oath.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — May 10, 2014 at 12:11 am

  7. Perhaps they could have brought Enrichetta back and chopped her head off. She did a lot of harm.

    I didn’t read the program notes (or see the production), but the stuff about Victorian madwomen, Ophelia, and the oppressions of society is hogwash. Despite its setting, I Puritani is a thoroughly Italian opera of the high Romantic era. Romantic heroines are not oppressed by Society, they are oppressed by Fate, with Society acting at worst as an intermediary. When Bellini died in 1835 Victoria was sixteen years old and still a princess, not that this mattered to an Italian. Madness of both heroes and heroines has been a popular fictional device forever – Hercules and Orlando are two excellent examples – but it was particularly useful to bel canto composers, because madwomen are known to chatter and babble and display great variety of emotion as their minds wander, which provides great opportunity for musical character and melodic invention and coloratura. The imperatives are musical and theatrical, not moral.

    And Ophelia chatters a bit, but really she goes rather quietly; Bellini wouldn’t have found her mild madness adequate to his purposes.

    Comment by SamW — May 10, 2014 at 8:15 am

  8. In the midst of a very lovely performance of I Puritani, I was disgusted by the senseless cutting of the entire first act finale, and the gratuitous murder of Arturo, which then necessitated cutting the opera’s joyous finale as that would have contradicted the director’s wholly unjustified destruction of the opera’s plot. Bellini wrote I Puritani, NOT La Vendetta di Riccardo.

    Comment by William Fregosi — May 10, 2014 at 9:37 am

  9. Hogwash? It is rather sad that all you see in the mad scene is a babbling gimmick to permit coloratura! Indeed, if society plays no role one wonders why Bellini had a chorus at all (not to mention two, with such important parts!)

    Comment by Joseph E. Morgan — May 10, 2014 at 10:43 pm

  10. I am sure Bellini was deeply concerned about the societal pressures that drive women to madness, which is why he included mad scenes in most of his operas, including three of them in this one alone. I am sure the box office had nothing to do with it. On the other hand I don’t know much about opera, but I have seen this one, and I could have sworn that the heroine goes mad because she thinks that she has been abandoned by her lover, not because of Society’s Oppressions. Of course we know he has actually left her due to matters of War, Politics, and Religion (not to mention Honor), and thus society plays a role, just as as it does in Macbeth or a Beyoncé show. Society always plays a role in every dramatic work, unless we’re talking about Krapp’s Last Tape. That doesn’t make it the primary agent of every action, or in this case of Elvira’s madness.

    Comment by SamW — May 11, 2014 at 8:58 am

  11. I dunno folks… I get it that Boston isn’t “an opera town,” which might account for the applause in some of the strangest moments of a performance, but this was the most uneven performance I’ve witnessed at this venue on Friday.

    Forget the chopped beginning… let’s give them the benefit of the doubt for artistic license. But between flip-flopping on falsetto, curt endings to high notes, and the catastrophic performance of French Horn solos 101, I was disappointed at the lack of general musicality normally displayed. It’s a live performance – been there, done that. Suffered my own trials and tribulations and often with dismay but, in this case, our French Horn soloist couldn’t hit a single note solidly or on pitch during her brief solo!

    As for an assassination at the end, well, that’s a bit like re-writing the libretto for an effect entirely different than intended. Yeah, sure I’d prefer Carmen and Don José to marry and live happily ever after. I’d also rather see Pinkerton and Madama Butterfly not end up split up by her ‘honorable’ parting. But that isn’t the way things were written, nor is it the way things should be ‘mis en scene.’

    Well, if nothing else it’s always an adventure – I guess that might have been appreciated by young Mozart, or even Puccini! :-)

    Comment by K&N — May 12, 2014 at 3:10 am

  12. Sunday’s (final) performance sounded more like Mr. Morgan’s review than some of the commentators’ descriptions. The singing was satisfactory to excellent; the false conclusion was stupid and irritating; the biggest disappointment was the truncation of the Act I finale. I wonder why the musical director, Maestro Angus, tolerates distortions like this and the interruption of the Magic Flute overture. Who’s in charge at BLO?

    Comment by Martin Cohn — May 12, 2014 at 9:07 am

  13. I went to the matinee, May 11. I was shocked by the stab-in-the-back, like everyone else. The synopsis in the program even states “it seems that they can be united.” I guess Riccardo didn’t get the message. Others have complained about the habit at BLO of adding shocking bits that are not called for by either tradition or the libretto. They always seem to come at the end, so one leaves the theater wondering whose stupid idea it was.

    I found the staging wooden and incomprehensible. What was with the red-dressed weird sisters throughout? Why did everyone wear a cavalier-style wig? Are tenors required to wear leather pants?

    The singing was quite uneven. There were the already-mentioned falsetto phrases. Coburn had pretty nice coloratura but her high notes were too loud and screechy. The chorus had a number of ensemble problems.

    Yet I enjoyed the performance. “Puritani” has so much musical interest and so many good tunes that it’s hard not to enjoy it.

    Comment by David Bean — May 12, 2014 at 9:07 am

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