Born in Catania, Sicily, Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1837), together with Gioacchino Rossini and Gaetano Donizetti, is one of the three bel canto giants that graced the Italian operatic scene in the first half of the nineteenth century. He wrote ten operas, but only La Sonnambula, Norma and I Puritani have remained in the repertoire. Still, such works as I Capuleti ed i Montecchi, Il Pirata and Beatrice di Tenda make the occasional appearance.
What we are interested in here is Bellini's last masterpiece I Puritani. Premiered on 24 January 1835 at the Theatre-Italien in Paris to a libretto by Carlo Pepoli, the opera was a huge success and has remained as such ever since. And why not? It offers everything that makes bel canto so appealing: virtuosic coloratura, mad scenes, large choral tableaux, dramatic duets and tenors singing high notes.
The story deals with the religious war in seventeenth century England between the Republican Puritans and the Catholic royalist Stuarts, and tells of the love story that runs between the two camps. Elvira, the daughter of Puritans, loves the Catholic officer Arturo Talbot. Elvira's beloved uncle Sir George brings the good news that he has persuaded Elvira's father to allow her to marry Arturo rather than the Puritan Riccardo. In the meantime, Queen Henrietta, Charles I's widow, is being held captive in a fortress governed by Lord Walton, Elvira's father. Arturo helps the widowed Queen escape by dressing her in Elvira's bridal veil. The bride, believing she has been betrayed, loses all reason. Act II is dominated by Elvira's mad scene. Riccardo announces that Arturo has been sentenced to death by Parliament, after which Elvira goes about her ravings to the consternation of all. George urges Riccardo to save Arturo to spare Elvira dying. Riccardo reluctantly agrees but swears that, should Arturo join the Royalists in battle, he will exact revenge for the pain he has caused Elvira. In the final part of the plot Arturo returns to Elvira despite the danger. Fearing that her lover will disappear again, she cries out in despair. Her screams attract the attention of Riccardo and a group of Puritan soldiers to the scene. Riccardo soon pronounces the death sentence on Arturo, but this brings Elvira back to her senses. The two lovers are reunited for what seems to be the last time. At the last minute, soldiers announce the Stuarts' defeat. A universal pardon is issued leaving Arturo and Elvira free to marry.
Overtly sentimental? Maybe; but Bellini must have had a premonition that death was just round the corner and wanted his swansong to be his greatest masterpiece. Indeed, the music is overwhelmingly inspiring and the melodies are so gloriously beautiful that one cannot fail to fall under their spell.
Listen — Bellini: Sinfonia (I Puritani)
(CD1 track 1, 1:26-2:00) ℗ 2021 Delos Productions Inc:
Apart from the two main characters, sung by Sarah Coburn and Lawrence Brownlee respectively, this performance is an all-Lithuanian enterprise, so I was not expecting anything special, considering that Italian opera in this Baltic nation does not boast any kind of tradition. Happily, I was wholly surprised by the intensity and emotion that the singers put into their effort, and the sure hand of Constantine Orbelian kept things moving along with a measured pace. Indeed, the chemistry between conductor and performers cannot be faulted.
Listen — Bellini: È già al ponte - passa il forte (I Puritani Act I)
(CD2 track 8, 0:29-1:22) ℗ 2021 Delos Productions Inc:
By the way, the diction of all concerned, a vital factor for the success of any opera, is highly commendable.
Listen — Bellini: Suon d'araldi? (I Puritani Act III)
(CD3 track 19, 2:40-3:39) ℗ 2021 Delos Productions Inc:
Not a blockbuster from The Met or La Scala, but a heartwarming undertaking that might be the catalyst to more performances of Italian bel canto operas in this part of the world.
Copyright © 29 August 2021