Like the last works of so many musical geniuses, even those who die young, I Puritani seems both a consolidation and a fulfilment. Had he lived, Bellini would certainly have gone on to explore new expressive and formal technique, but this opera, if a sadly premature conclusion, crowns his accomplishments in the form. The tragic nobility of Norma is here, along with the delicate sentimental pathos of La sonnambula, the sweeping melodrama of Il pirata, and even some of the compositional experiments Bellini tried out in his earliest operas before consciously simplifying his style. I Puritani never really vanished from the repertoire after its extremely successful first performance at the Théâtre Italien in Paris – the score contained too much beauty and dramatic force to be completely ignored. Like so many bel canto works of the period, though, it became mainly a vehicle for light coloratura sopranos, the score was often brutally abridged, and the power of the overall conception severely compromised. Although Elvira, prima inter pares, clearly dominates, the opera is still essentially an ensemble work, thanks to the careful symmetries of Bellini’s design and his deep commitment to each character in the drama.
Even in the production under review, all eyes were on the interpreter of the role of Elvira, the young Cuban soprano Maria Aleida. Preceded by her own fame as a stratospheric soprano, Miss Aleida did not certainly disappoint those expecting flights toward the uppermost regions of the human voice. She can be heard online in clips where she reaches a A 6 with no apparent difficulty; here she limited herself “only” to a F sharp, displayed with nonchalance in the variations – very much turn of the century and stylistically censurable – of the Polonaise; ça va sans dire, the finale of Act I was capped by an endless high F. Unfortunately such command of the sovracuti is not matched by an equally noteworthy middle register: up to a A 5 the Cuban soprano is in fact tiny, threadlike and monochrome, and all things considered, if we give even a cursory look at the score, we will notice that the role of Elvira is much more lyrical than the performing tradition allows us to believe. In any case, the capital sin for a soprano eager to devote herself to this repertoire is an inaccurate and untidy agility. Except for stunning staccatos, Miss Aleida’s coloratura was rather approximate: the famous downward chromatic scales in the Act II cabaletta sounded more like slides, almost glissandos. Despite such flaws, she was able to elicit a warm applause at the end of the great scene thanks to a high E flat so long and secure that it gave the impression that, had she been allowed to, she would have concluded on the A flat above. She revealed a remarkable temperament and stage command, and her graceful and pleasant figure does not certainly hurt. Similar observations can be made about Jesús Léon as Arturo. Just like his colleague, the Mexican tenor can rely on extremely easy sovracuti: although the infamous F 5 written by Bellini in “Credeasi misera” was prudently avoided, the several Ds natural – the Act III duet was performed in its original key – were undoubtedly his ace in the hole; his wan and whitish middle register caused substantial damage in the excited moments as well as the more lyrical sections: the long Act III Romanza with its central tessitura turned into a endless litany, performed without chiaroscuros, with a limited colour palette. A small accident, a missed attack in the Act I arioso was probably due to the palpable tension that tarnished la ligne du chant of the entire scene. For the record, it must be noted that both Léon and Antonino Siragusa (the first cast Arturo) were replacing two colleagues that had mysteriously disappeared from the playbill just a few weeks ago, and that it is no easy task to find an adequate replacement for one of the most inaccessible and mythologized tenor roles.
While not possessing a particularly rich timbre, Riccardo Zanellato’s soft grained bass does have a solid technique; however he lacks incisiveness and imagination. Just like Arturo’s Act III romanza, Giorgio’s Act II solo can easily become a soporiferous ditty if not performed with a wide range of nuances and creative phrasing. The uniformity so far described was fortunately interrupted by Julian Kim, a Korean baritone gifted with an expertly and evenly produced instrument and an easy top register, which allowed him to close the so-called “duet of the two basses) and thus Act II with a stirring A flat. The other end of the spectrum was less impressive, and the low A flat at in the phrase “per anni ed anni” in his cavatina did not quite pan out. His precise agility together with an aristocratic phrasing make him ideal for the repertoire of the endangered baryton-noble category. Among the secondary roles Martina Belli’s pleasing timbre stood out, and if Gianluca Marghera displayed the required authority for the role of Lord Gualtiero Valton, Saverio Fiore as Bruno showed a somewhat untidy singing line.
The Chorus of the Maggio Musicale led by Lorenzo Fratini was in excellent form. The Orchestra did not have a good start, with the horns cracking a couple of times in the Prelude, but it gained its bearing pretty quickly under the baton of Matteo Beltrami: his fastidious observation of accents and dynamics, the tautly sprung rhythms, superbly blended instrumental sonorities, and the imposing architectural strength of his reading clearly reveal that Bellini knew exactly what he was doing when he devised such a deceptively simple orchestral back-drop, one that so precisely and skilfully serves his expressive needs.
Elvira. What a time ! canst say how long ?
Arturo: Three months.
Elvira: Ah no, it is ages three.
This is an old English translation of the moment when in Act III Arturo tells Elvira that he has been away only three months, and she replies it had been three centuries, three centuries of horror. Such phrase, according to his own words, was stage director Fabio Ceresa’s key to the opera. Thus he imagines that the whole action is a prolepsis: Riccardo laments the loss of his beloved Elvira, and if in the libretto such loss is figurative, here it is very real, as he mourns her on her tomb. Elvira is dead, Arturo has fled and when he returns he finds Elvira’s ghosts; the soldiers that supposedly arrest him are nothing but dead people, zombies coming out of their graves. The whole action takes place in a gothic cathedral seen at an angle; its dome, intact in the first act, gradually collapses in the following two acts. It is an interesting concept, and a valid attempt to bring some fresh air into a very linear, cliche story.