Bellini - I Puritani

ONP Bastille, Friday December 6 2013

Conductor: Michele Mariotti. Production and Costumes: Laurent Pelly. Sets: Chantal Thomas. Lighting: Joël Adam. Lord Gualtiero Valton: Wojtek Smilek. Sir Giorgio: Michele Pertusi. Lord Arturo Talbot: Dmitry Korchak. Sir Riccardo Forth: Mariusz Kwiecien. Sir Bruno Roberton: Luca Lombardo. Enrichetta di Francia: Andreea Soare. Elvira: Maria Agresta. Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris.

Bellini in Père Lachaise
Apart from the very occasional aria, Bellini isn't a composer I listen to at home. My experience of his complete works comes largely from live performances, some of which played their part in the eventual naming of this blog, so I can't say I know them well - only well enough to know they're not for me (a remark which will probably get me called arrogant, stupid and bitter again; that's the usual result when I say I don't admire either Bellini or Donizetti). But I'd read that I Puritani was possibly his best score and, to my untutored ear, it sounded a lot more convincing than others I've groaned through, though it runs out of steam towards the end. You inevitably wonder what he might have achieved had he only lived longer.

The plot, however, never had any steam to start with. That may be one reason I Puritani is a rarity, though on second thoughts if weak plots stopped operas getting performed the repertoire would be severely curtailed*. More likely it's the fact it was premiered by Rubini, Grisi, Tamburini and Lablache (excusez du peu, as they say in France) and has a tenor part calling (in theory at any rate) for an F that keeps it off the boards. It isn't a work you're likely to programme if you aren't fairly sure of getting your hands on some brave and (very) capable singers - though it's useful to note that not even Florez goes for the very top note.

This being so, we probably had as good a cast as you're likely to get these days. My hero at the FT said Dmitri Korchak was "bewilderingly uneven, veering from suave declamation to reckless go-for-broke brawn at the drop of a hat," but there are moments in this part when go-for-broke brawn is probably about the best anyone can do. On YouTube, not even Gedda makes it sound easy or altogether beautiful.

Maria Agresta has a gorgeous timbre in the middle and lower range and her expressiveness improved as the role turned tragic. Also, those fearsome descending runs in "Vien, diletto" were more accurately tuned than is sometimes the case on well-known recordings, however illustrious the forbear, and to me by no means as "savonnés" or portamentoed as some critics said. It was a shame her top notes didn't ring out more: they lacked thrill factor: just when you wanted to have your socks knocked off, the voice shrank.

Oliver Cromwell
Pertusi and Kwiecien made a good pair, the former all avuncular elegance and experience, the latter contrastingly youthful, straightforward and in-your-face, and the rest of the cast were better than might sometimes be the case when all the budget's been blown on stars for the leading roles. The chorus seemed to me somewhat en retrait but perhaps that was a quirk of the Bastille's quirky acoustics. The orchestra was as attentive to the score, more deserving, as I said above, of their care than much Bellini I've heard, as Mariotti was of the singers. I should imagine they like him.

The production depended more on sets, costumes and lighting than acting. The sets were not solid, but open "filigree" ironwork, like giant, elaborate gazebos. Or, as the FT put it "Chantal Thomas’s elegant Meccano castle poetically presents Elvira as a prisoner in a birdcage." Openwork chimneys, coffered arcades, rooftops, battlements, spiral stairs and portcullis rotated, black, against a plain backdrop, subtly lit in coolly sophisticated, graded pastels. At one point a fire was lit in a filigree grate. Pretty, though the otherwise empty space is no help to singers struggling to project into the Bastille's gaping maw.

The chorus of puritans scuttled around busily, almost comically, in a way that didn't offend me but seems to have upset some critics, who felt Pelly wasn't taking things seriously enough. They wore stiff, stylised period costumes in black and all shades of grey; the women, in their conical skrts, whirling around with tiny, invisible steps, as if on casters. The equally stiff soldiers, dashing across the stage one after the other, strictly in line, reminded me of Playmobil roundheads. But the soloists were more or less left to their own, conventional devices, at the front of the stage, a surprising cop-out from a director who has given us so many memorable evenings. He seems to do a better job of comic works than serious ones.

*I wondered, at the end, if I Puritani was the inspiration for the messenger on horseback, in Die Dreigroschenoper, comically announcing that Macheath has been pardoned by the queen and granted a title, a castle and a pension.

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