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TWOJA MUZA (June/July) 2014/English


                                                                                         BELLINI.  I PURITANI

                                                                                                                                                                    by Charles Kellis


               The Puritani to which I was exposed, when I was growing up, revolved around a sect of pilgrims whose pure devotion to God contained an extreme element of painful self denial and unrelenting self righteousness. When I first investigated the Opera "I Puritani" I thought we would be dealing with Plymouth Rock, or Salem, Massachusetts in the USA. I was disappointed since I could no longer be able to tie it to another opera by Robert Ward, "The Crucible".  Bellini's is tame by comparison. No witch hunts and no violent displays of religious fanaticism. Instead we have a more organized civility, with only the mere beheading of King Charles and the threatened killing of his wife Queen Henrietta, who was in exile.

            The story involves the rivalry between the Puritans and the Royalists in England's 1640's civil war. Puritan Elvira, promised to Riccardo, also a Puritan, by her father ---actually loves Arturo, a Royalist---. Her Puritan father laments and agrees to allow her marriage to Arturo who is about to help Royalist, Queen Henrietta to escape,  Riccardo duels with Arturo but allows him to leave with the queen, hoping to get him out of the picture. When Arturo goes away, however, Elvira operatically loses her mind. Giorgio, Elvira's uncle and Riccardo are heard planning the fate of Arturo with a solidarity of action.  Alas, when Arturo finally returns, Elvira miraculously regains her mental faculties and as the Royalists are defeated ---declaring general amnesty. Arturo is pardoned. Elvira and Arturo are then united happily thereafter. There you have it ---a British story of conflict, love and madness. And the soprano does not die at the end.

         Fortunately, Bellini's last opera ---he died at 33--- is filled with wonderfully melodious arias and duets. The most beautiful and a staple of many coloratura sopranos is the aria, "qui la voce", followed by the cabaletta "vien diletto". It was interesting to learn that the very first inaugural performance at the Met was  "I Puritani", originally staged for the famous Polish soprano, Marcella Sembrich in 1849. Here we have the young soprano Olga Peretyatko, an ideal, lovely, agile moving Elvira as she flitted around the stage like a ballerina. Her coloratura was marked by a beautiful quality in her gracefully spinning high D and Eb, some of which were almost in tune. Her lower and middle voice, however, was marred by inconsistency as her Italian diction was often muddied by unclear articulation.

            Her real life husband, the conductor Michele Mariotti fit right in, keeping everything in order with his wife's agile voice, keeping up with her many ornamental cadenzas. He came across as a young, capable musician who was attentive to the individual needs of all the singers. At the very outset, regardless the unsteady entrances of the horns in the overture, he managed to set the tone for an expressive unity that mostly continued throughout. He is a talented conductor who is obviously very familiar with the score. He also engages in giving the musicians many cues with a lot of gestures, many of which may not be altogether necessary.

              Mariucz Kwiczien's unusual voice developed a powerful interpretation of the role of Riccardo. He has been progressively developing into an elegant Baritone who has already proven his refined ability as a wonderful,singing actor. His initial delivery of  "Ah, per sempre io ti perdei"  was breathtakingly beautiful. He handled every ornament (and there were many) with the greatest of ease. His legato singing was exemplary and his diction was impeccable. That sounds to me like an ideal singer! I predict that within a very short time, the name Kwiczien, although he has already gained a certain amount of fame and recognition, will very soon become one of the premier baritones on the horizon. I personally was greatly impressed with his "Riccardo".

              Arturo his rival, portrayed by the Tenor Lawrence Brownlee displayed a good voice with a good enough technique that seemed to respond well to most of his theatrical intentions.

He was just simply "very good". Almost everything he did was well planned and successfully accomplished. His very high "accuti", although based on a counter-tenor application of quasi- falsetto, were still effective. He is a good example of what a smooth sailing tenor should be able to produce. A good vocal line with continuity. The fact remains, however, his actual vocal instrument is not memorable. It is merely very well organized but not endowed with the intrinsic beauty of a classic tenor voice that has already been defined through operatic history. The fact that he is African American has nothing to do with this judgement. Leontine Price had that intrinsic beauty. Jessy Norman had it. Simon Estes, had it in abundance. Browlee may even be more accurate and more stylistically adebt, but he is just missing that extra element of superstar quality. This is not to detract from his fine performance or his value as a singer. He will always be useful as a good performer who does his job well.

             Queen Henrietta, who Arturo helped to escape, was the mezzo, Elizabeth Bishop. She had too little to sing to be able to even give her much attention, except that she briefly

exemplified the recent vulgarization of the modern American female  ---"excessive vibrato".

            The bass, Michelle Pertusi, possess a smooth virile voice. In his duet with  Kwiecien, his voice rang true in the upper and middle range. The measure of a real bass, however, much like the waiting for the high Bb or C of a tenor, Is the anticipation of the low F, F# or even at least a sonorous G in the bass voice.  In this case his almost inaudible low F was a disappointment. His comportment, nonetheless, had to be applauded for his fine characterization of Giorgio, Elvira's uncle, and his well tuned presentation of the lovely aria, "cinta di fiori" as well as his duet,"Suoni la tomba" together with Riccardo.

            The first act scenery was dull and uninviting. After the opening of the proscenium, the Puritans gathered together, marching in a boring procession. All the ladies, regardless of whether pilgrim or not, were all wearing gigantic white collars. They sang what they needed to sing and then just as unceremoniously, were dismissed. As a matter of fact the staging in every scene and every act was like sheep being herded together into a group to be later herded out.  Any Imaginative traffic patterns?

          The redeeming feature, however, appeared in the second act when the design seemed, most impressively, to imply a painting by Vermeer (or was it Rembrandt) of a Puritan family portrait, projected as though it could have been in a special room at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.  Quite impressive for an opera house that has a big impending strike on the way. With about 4000 seats, it has to be a demanding marketing challenge. Should it remain with the standard repertoire -- Boheme, Butterfly and Tosca? Should it bow to some  imaginative alterations---Rigoletto, In Las Vegas and Traviata with a big Clock? Or will it evolve into an awakening of nouveau stylized, atonal flight patterns that will shake up traditional conventionality? So far, the Met has managed a pretty successful balancing act. I hope that acts 2 and 3 will show us the way.