I Puritani: The Bel Cantists Strike Back

You may be saying, "Hey, she said she went to Eugene Onegin on Tuesday... WE WANT TCHAIKOVSKY!" and then proceed to bang your knife and fork on the table. I did go to Eugene Onegin on Tuesday night but am skipping right over it (for now, but wait until you hear what happened!) in favor of a blow-by-blow of Thursday night's I Puritani.

You may recall (or not) that I have already seen this production back on January 3rd. When I started on this journey of classical gratification I had decided that I would only buy tickets to those works I had never seen before live, barring unusual circumstances. Compared with other forms of entertainment in this city a night at the opera can be relatively inexpensive, but it isn't free. At this point in my life there are a heck of a lot of pieces I've never seen.

I Puritani is one of those lovely operas of the "bel canto" tradition. Bel canto literally means "beautiful song", and it has largely been a vehicle for highly virtuosic singers to strut their vocal stuff. Joan Sutherland is a very famous bel canto singer, Beverly Sills is another. Maria Callas successfully straddled the division between bel canto operas and dramatic/verismo operas (for a while). And, of course, my favorite tenor, Rockwell Blake, was one of the first true male bel canto singers in modern times. The bel canto style is often derided for being nothing more than "fluff", and indeed the plots tend to be weaker (ie. more ridiculous) than most. (However, Callas and Blake proved that there could be so much more than just beautiful singing to bel canto opera.) What they lack in sophisticated and believable plot lines, however, they more than make up for with gorgeous orchestration and, if the singers are good, exquisite vocal performances full of ornamentation as unique as the singer.

The story: The setting is the English Civil Wars (1642 - 1651) between the Puritans (Roundheads) and Royalists (Cavaliers). The action takes Plymouth, which is a Puritan stronghold.

Act I: Elvira, the daughter of the commander of the fort (Gualtiero (Lord Walton)), has been promised in marriage to Riccardo (Sir Richard Forth), a Puritan. However, she loves Arturo (Lord Arthur Talbot), a Royalist. Elvira tells her uncle Giorgio (Sir George Walton) that she will die if she is forced to marry Riccardo. Giorgio assures her that he has convinced her father to let her marry Arturo instead. (Oddly, Elvira's uncle is much more important in the story than her father.) Everyone is happy (except Riccardo). Arturo arrives to the cheers of the people, which is odd since he is a Royalist and they are at war, but whatever. Like I said, it doesn't have to be particularly realistic. Arturo and Elvira express their love and are blessed by her father. She leaves to put on her wedding dress. In the meantime, an order is given to bring a prisoner to London for trial. While Elvira is away, Arturo discovers that the prisoner is none other than Queen Enrichetta (Queen Elisabeth), the widow of King Charles, to whom he is, of course, loyal. (Nobody else at Plymouth apparently know this.) He learns that she will be executed if brought to London, so he plans to escape with her using Elvira's bridal veil as a disguise. (Never mind the veil is sheer.) They are about to escape when Riccardo arrives. Thinking the woman is Elvira, whom he loves, he challenges Arturo. They start to fight. Enrichetta stops the fight by revealing herself as not Elvira, but the prisoner. Riccardo, ever the pragmatist, lets them escape knowing that it will be Arturo's ruin and the only way to get Elvira back. Elvira returns looking for Arturo. Riccardo tells her he has fled with the prisoner. Thinking he has abandoned her for another woman, Elvira collapses in despair. Are we having fun yet?

Act II: Giorgio tells the people of the stronghold that Elvira is engulfed in grief and sings a song about it. Riccardo arrives bearing an order from the parliament that Arturo be put to death for his treason (escaping with the prisoner). Elvira enters, mad as a hatter, not recognizing people (her uncle or her would-be suitor) and vacillates between extreme happiness and extreme sadness, in song, of course. This is the famous "mad scene" and famous for vocal pyrotechnics. Elvira departs. Giorgio convinces Riccardo that the only way to help Elvira is to find Arturo. They decide if he fights them they will fight him back, but if he comes as friend they will try to help him. Cue the stirring baritone-bass duet. (Very reminiscent of the "oath duet" of Verdi's Don Carlo by the way.

Act III: The troops are searching for Arturo. He avoids capture and is thankful to be back on his native soil (Plymouth). He is torn between his love for Elvira (otherwise, why come back?) and his loyalty to Stuart. He thinks he hears Elvira singing but no one answers. He sings his lament and then draws aside. Elvira enters, thinking she herself heard Arturo (I think) and wonders where he is. "Right here!" he proclaims! The mood then goes from joy (after all she was lost without him) to grief and suspicion (she still thinks he abandoned her). He tells her the "other woman" was the Queen. The mood swings back to joy as Elvira realizes she was not abandoned. But, their happiness is short-lived as the troops come in (along with Giorgio, Riccardo, and half of the town, go figure) to arrest him. Mood swings back to despair, Elvira claims she will die if they are separated again, grows pale and tremulous. She says if Arturo dies then she will die too. Arturo chastises the people for being so cruel. As he is about to be led away a messenger arrives announcing the defeat of the Royalists and pardon for all involved. (How convenient.) Che gioia! Arturo is released and he and Elvira are reunited.

I told you the plots can be a bit unbelievable. However, it doesn't matter. The most important thing in bel canto opera is the singing. If great drama and depth of feeling are obtainable that is spectacular (see above for Callas and Blake). But the singing is the thing.

So the first time I saw I Puritani it was with Anna Netrebko as Elvira and Eric Cutler as Arturo. I don't know how much people outside of the classical music world know about Anna Netrebko, but she is the darling of the critics and the media right now. She is extremely beautiful, thin and curvy, and is extremely enigmatic. I saw her last year as Gilda in Rigoletto as well (a very different role, as you might know.) She is always always the most energetic presence on stage and is a very believable actor. Every performance that she was scheduled for was sold out.


Unfortunately she is not a bel canto singer. She does have a nice sounding voice, don't get me wrong, but she has none of the vocal flexibility to do the many runs and fast and sophisticated ornamentation that is bel canto singing. She can't sing a trill to save her life. Her performance? A tour-de-force of acting. But all the running and twirling and flinging herself around the stage to portray the love-struck and then love-lorn Elvira impacts her technique negatively, besides which she doesn't have the necessary training in this style to begin with. Needless to say, I was more than a little disappointed.

Added to this drama, Eric Cutler, the scheduled Arturo for the beginning of the run, had to be replaced at the dress rehearsal by Gregory Kunde, the scheduled Arturo for the end of the run. The first two performances, in which Kunde replaced Cutler, were apparently a disaster. There was pretty much universal panning of poor Kunde. People were saying things like why was he still singing, and it was a disgrace that the Met couldn't find a better replacement. I wasn't there so I don't know, and I didn't hear any Sirius broadcasts. Nevertheless, I was relieved that there was no tell-tale slip of paper in my program announcing a substitution on the 3rd. Cutler sang well - not brilliant, but well. (You could tell a little that he was coming off of a cold or something.)

Fast-forward three weeks. An announcement was made that Elizabeth Futral was to replace the original Elvira (I can't recall who it was to be - Makarena?) in the final performance of the run. The final performance, unlike the previous six or seven, was woefully undersold, and rumor had it that she was brought in to try to bolster ticket sales. I had just seen Futral in the world premeire run of The First Emperor a few weeks prior and thought she was really wonderful. I also saw her in Lucia di Lammermore last year at the Met, and have seen her in a video of Mathilde di Shabran from ten years ago (both also bel canto operas). So, a friend of mine and I decided to go to this last performance of the run, the first time for her and the second for me. I was a tad apprehensive, after all it was Kunde who was scheduled to sing Arturo, but I went with an open mind.

I am so glad that I went again. Although both were fairly tight in their first scenes, Futral in Act I Scene I, Kunde in Act I Scene III, they loosened up marvelously and gave glorious performances. When they both first started singing I really though "oh no...", but this seems to happen rather frequently. (Remember Patricia Racette in Act I of Don Carlo? Kind of on the icky side... but brilliant thereafter. Hmmm, actually I can't find any specific review of Son Carlo on this blog. Well, take my word for it that she was sharp for nearly the entire first act at the top of her range.) Futral I think might have been nervous - is this her first performance of this role anywhere? I thought I heard that somewhere. And Kunde - who knows. The role of Arturo is known as a killer among tenors (there are Ds and even an F above high C in the written score. An F people!) I'm not even sure if he sang the F, few tenors do, but my friend thought so. (I honestly couldn't even remember. I tend to think not, I've only ever seen/heard it once in a clip. Not even Blake sang the F.) But he definitely sang the D at the end and, holy cow, what a note! All of his high notes (barring those at the very beginning which resonated oddly and sounded somewhat unsupported) were extremely solid - no reaching at all! Nor for Futral, who has a fair number of notes above C all the way up to, I think, Eb. Both were pitch perfect all night, something which tends to really bother me if they are not. Futral has runs and ornamentation to spare, a brilliant top that she can sustain, and gorgeous trills. And she also happens to be beautiful. Bravi!

As for the rest of the cast, they were the same as the first time around I believe (I say this without actually checking so I could be wrong). Franco Vassallo as Riccardo was good, but had something of a flutter or something in his voice that prevented me from being fully enamoured with him. But he gave a solid, convincing performance of a scorned man. Oren Gradus as Giorgio had a warm bass voice that personally I really enjoyed. Several people have mentioned that it seemed he dropped down an octave in several spots and questioned why. I have no idea if he did this - I am not extremely familiar with the vocal line of the bass role. Still, he gave a fine performance. The baritone-bass duet in Act II didn't sizzle the way it really has the potential to do - I'm not sure if it was the singers, conductor, orchestra, or what. Maria Zifchak once again played Enrichetta and once again delivered. I think she is a fine performer and maybe one day we will see her in larger roles. (She also sang Emilia in Rossini's Otello last month at Carnegie Hall, a performance I have yet to review... (ah, I'll get to it one of these days!) Sadly, the house was not at all full (maybe 50 - 70%?), which is unfortunate because it was a fine, fine performance of a musically beautiful opera sung by real practitioners of the art form. In almost every instance I though that the singers deserved larger ovations that they actually got (although if the house was only half full...)

Are you still reading? Intrigued by I Puritani? Here are a couple of good clips you may be interested in (click on the links to be transported to YouTube):

Juan Diego Florez as Arturo in Act I - Watch it for the singing and his cuteness, but not for good drama (he tends to be a wee bit stiff, plus this looks like a pretty static production). This is the preeminent bel canto tenor today. :)

Gregory Kunde in the same scene - If Florez is not your cup of tea, try Kunde! He has a much different voice than Florez. This is twenty years ago - he sounded more worn on Thursday but honestly still quite good.

Joan Sutherland in Act II - The infamous "mad scene", though this early clip is just the very end. Sutherland made a superstar career out of singing these bel canto roles, and she (along with Sills and Callas) was at the forefront of the bel canto revival in the 1950s and 1960s.

Gregory Kunde and Luciana Serra in Act III - The reunion of the lovers. Watch her mood change from happy to sad to happy. (She tends a bit sharp at the beginning, but just ignore it and enjoy the scene.) The key words to listen for are "la regina" (the queen).

Are you still here? Ok, a teeny tiny bit of knitting content. I started another sock, in the lovely STR Scottish Highlands:


I am hating it. The above shot was my first try. I have subsequently ripped and restarted this sock about four times already. I think I have a pattern I can live with, but the sock is too embryonic right now to see anything, so you will have to wait until tomorrow to find out what I chose!

PS Ginny wins my love and adoration as the first (and only) person who wants to be on my blogroll! Ginny you are already on my list! But thank you thank you thank you for saying such nice things. You deserve a prize. (Hmmm, now what to I have that I can give away COUGHmohairandalpacaCOUGH?) :)


At 2:28 PM, Blogger southern gal said...

Thanks for the great review of Puritani. I listened on SIRIUS and - WOW EF was GREAT!

As for blogroll... me too please!

And now I have to go lie down and recover from JENUFA this afternoon !

At 3:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Juan Diego be da man. I be goin' ta hear my boy at Carnegie Hall on March 10. Who wif me?

At 5:16 PM, Blogger Ginny said...

Sounds like a great show.

And how bout a trade for some LLs' Black Purl? I have some that I am nowhere near using, and I remember you saying you were coveting some. I was going to make a Clapotis, but I've never worked with mohair or alpaca...


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