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.
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.