Friday, March 31, 2017

Puritani in the Right Hands

Bellini’s I puritani
Metropolitan Opera
February 22, 2017

A puritana in the right hands
Photo credit: Marty Sohl
Bellini’s I Puritani is the one where two young lovers are separated by politics. Wait, that could be any number of stories that we have caught of late: Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette, Rossini’s Tancredi… This time the couple in love is situated on opposite sides of the English civil war divide and, thanks to the mercy of the winners, it actually all works out happily in the end.

Having caught this opera during its previous run at the Metropolitan Opera, it left us lukewarm to say the least. It is not the tautest opera in terms of plot and dramatic tension, but Bellini manages to endow it with some of the most beautiful and unforgettable music. When sung by great singers, as it was tonight, it is somehow transformed into a downright exciting opera, absolutely thrilling.

Tenor Javier Camarena and soprano Diana Damrau had me seeing Puritani in a whole new light. Camarena has a sound that is honest and sincere, effortlessly exuding nobility, purity, goodness. He is entirely round sounding and harmonious, nothing jarring. This tenor has something of the dashing crooner to his vocal style, the way he mellifluously glides along Bellini’s long vocal lines. It is distinctively Latin in its warmth and ardor.

A bubbly, bouncy Damrau
Photo credit: Marty Sohl
When he sings his opening number late in Act I, the immortal quartet, A te, o cara, it becomes abundantly apparent why the young Elvira melts before him – because Camarena’s singing melts us too. He sounded so smooth and seductive that it is no wonder the heroine has fallen like a lovesick puppy for him. And so it rings true when later she laments his absence in her descent into madness and attempts to beckon him back saying, qui la sua voce soave. Oh, so very suave he was indeed. The feelings resonate in profound ways; ways that don’t always register when lesser singers embody the role. When the score clicks with the singers, the innate value of the underlying motivations become clear.

Damrau has a kinetic stage presence and her acting is wonderfully captivating. Under her tutelage, the smitten Elvira is a bubbly, bouncy, giddy little girl in her sane phase so that her breakdown is felt through the lens of being crushed in the full blossom of that young love. I found this embodiment of the character more effective than the more solemn good little church girl approach you typically see. Vocally, Damrau is at the top of her game. She has power, volume, ability, control. It was always a pleasure any time she sashayed up to the front of the stage and belted out her long Bellini bel canto lines with fluidity and poise filling the house so effortlessly, like her co-star.

So the curtain drops on a happy ending. The plot dissolves in victory for the revolutionary cause of the Puritans against the evil adversary represented by the Royalist die-hard followers of the recently decapitated King Charles I. All the traitors are pardoned and Elvira is able to marry happily across party lines.

A fair maiden driven mad
Photo credit: Marty Sohl
Fast-forward just a couple of years in historical reality and everything is no longer peaches and rosy cream. The deposed king’s son, Charles II will soon be restored to power, and he will ruthlessly put these rebel Puritans in their place. And there will be blood. Neither the opera nor the Met production with all of its period detail hint at the darker side of what will soon follow in the historical reality of the situation (the way Louisa Proske's recent production of Agrippina did at Juilliard).

As a worldly, no-nonsense friend of ours casually baulked at the Puritans’ final forgiveness of Camarena’s character the last time we saw this opera: “They let him off the hook?!? Just like that?! No, it can't be.” Our principled friend may have a point. If the particular moment in history can teach us a lesson it is this: “Once a traitor, always a traitor.” We shouldn’t be fooled by the appearances of anything else.

– Lei & Lui

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