Arduous and Contrasting Passion

Bellini's 'I Puritani' at Teatro dell'Opera di Roma, recommended by GIUSEPPE PENNISI


Despite COVID, music seasons continue using streaming and television. On the evening of 23 January 2021, it was difficult to decide whether to listen to and see a revival of a beautiful production of Mozart's Così fan tutte at La Scala or a concert version of Bellini's I Puritani at the Teatro dell'Opera di Roma. I opted for I Puritani for three reasons. Firstly I love the opera that due to vocal difficulties is rarely staged. (It has been missing since 1990 from the Opera Roma program.) Secondly, it was a rare opportunity to listen to an integral philological version of the opera (as at the Massimo di Palermo in 2018, reviewed in Music & Vision). Thirdly, I am particularly attached to Teatro dell'Opera because there at the age of twelve years, I was bewitched by the 'bizarre and haughty muse' (as opera is called by German musicologist Herbert Lindeberger). In the full critical edition of I Puritani, there is a richer orchestration, some cabaletta are recouped and all the 'traditional cuts' made in the current productions are restored. This is about twenty minutes of music. On the one hand, it proves that in Bellini the orchestra was not primarily support for bel canto. On the other, it contains a psychological deepening - especially of Riccardo's character - that often seems to be lacking.

I Puritani is an opera seria in three acts to a libretto by Carlo Pepoli, based on the historical drama Têtes rondes et Cavaliers by Jacques-François Ancelot and Joseph Xavier Boniface. Bellini composed it in nine months, between April 1834 and January 1835, a decidedly long time for that period; the reason was the librettist's lack of musical experience. It was triumphantly welcomed at the world premiere in Paris at the Théâtre des Italien on 24 January 1835, eight months before the composer's untimely death on 23 September of the same year.

The plot takes place in England around 1650, at the time of the Civil War between the Puritans, followers of Cromwell, and the Stuarts, loyal to King Charles I. The key element is the arduous and contrasting passion between Elvira, daughter of the General of the Puritans, and Arturo, knight of the Stuarts. The love affair is hindered by the jealousy of the antagonist Riccardo. This leads the young woman to madness. She is immersed in the memories of her happy past, until the desired return of the beloved who, condemned to death, will be saved at the last moment as pardoned by a general amnesty. The libretto by the good Count Pepoli, a politician and a poet, is unfortunately not one of the best that Bellini composed music for.

Roberto Abbado returned to the podium of the Opera House Orchestra after the New Year's Eve concert, which was live-streamed on 31 December 2020 and had more than fifteen thousand viewers. To some listeners, Abbado seemed to be directing a little slowly. He did so as compared with some famous recorded editions, such as that by Richard Bonynge with the ensembles of Catania's Teatro Massimo Bellini and Riccardo Muti with those of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino. However, the orchestration is different from that conducted by Bonynge and Muti; this critical and integral edition requires digging more into the orchestral flow to make the audience feel the romantic premonitions - for example, in the storm with which the third act begins. The excellent orchestra of the Teatro dell'Opera di Roma fully supports it. The winds and the brass stand out.

Roberto Abbado conducting Opera Roma's 'I Puritani'. Photo © 2021 Yasuko Kageyama
Roberto Abbado conducting Opera Roma's I Puritani. Photo © 2021 Yasuko Kageyama

The English soprano, naturalized Australian, Jessica Pratt was Elvira Valton. I have been following her since she debuted at the Rossini Opera Festival in 2011 in Adelaide di Borgogna when she surprised the audience with her daring vocal skills. I listened to her in I Puritani in the 2012 OperaLombardia production and in that of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino in 2015. She knows the role very well. She was fully in the part at the very moment she was on stage. She has now taken the place of Dame Joan Sutherland as the ideal interpreter of I Puritani: she has sported great virtuosity since the first act entry aria and was poignant and exciting in the long and impervious Act III duet.

American tenor Lawrence Brownlee was on his debut in Rome as Lord Arturo Talbo. I remember him, very young, at the Rossini Opera Festival as a reckless bel canto tenor. Since then, about twenty years have passed in which very little of him has been seen and heard in Italy because he has been engaged in other European countries and especially in the United States: at the Metropolitan Opera he is the Lord Arturo Talbo of reference. At forty eight years of age, his singing is no longer what it was at twenty five, but his voice is intact, his treble exciting (in the Act I entry aria and the Act III duet). He was very good in singing the legato and the flat notes. He sports a beautiful B natural.

Jessica Pratt as Elvira Valton and Lawrence Brownlee as Lord Arturo Talbo in Opera Roma's 'I Puritani'. Photo © 2021 Yasuko Kageyama
Jessica Pratt as Elvira Valton and Lawrence Brownlee as Lord Arturo Talbo in Opera Roma's I Puritani. Photo © 2021 Yasuko Kageyama

Franco Vassallo plays Sir Riccardo Forth and Nicola Ulivieri, Sir Giorgio Valton. Vassalo proves once again to be a great baritone. I have known Ulivieri since he made his debut at the Teatro Lirico Sperimentale in Spoleto in 1996 in Mozart's Don Giovanni. He is a bass-baritone. I would have preferred a darker Sir George but Ulivieri knows how to go down to a very low register. The duet with which they close the second act is compelling. Although the version was in concert form, the four protagonists acted as in a staged production.

Roberto Lorenzi was Lord Gualtiero Valton. The cast included two young talents from the 'Fabbrica' Young Artist Program project of the Teatro dell'Opera - Rodrigo Ortiz and Irene Savignano - as, respectively, Sir Bruno Roberton and Henrietta of France. The chorus, directed by Roberto Gabbiani, occupied part of the stalls and of the boxes with excellent stereophonic effects.

Opera Roma's 'I Puritani', conducted by Roberto Abbado, showing chorus members in the stalls and boxes. Photo © 2021 Yasuko Kageyama
Opera Roma's I Puritani, conducted by Roberto Abbado, showing chorus members in the stalls and boxes. Photo © 2021 Yasuko Kageyama

The production can be seen and heard on operaroma.tv; it can be accessed from the Teatro dell'Opera website. Don't miss it.

Copyright © 26 January 2021 Giuseppe Pennisi,
Rome, Italy






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