The Metropolitan Opera has been presenting I puritani, Vincenzo Bellini’s hit from 1835. It has a happy ending. Yes, the soprano goes mad, but she recovers her senses. Her beloved, and betrothed, is spared the chop. They live happily ever after, one presumes.
I don’t mind.
Wednesday night’s performance had a happy ending too. The first act was mediocre. The last two were better, giving the audience its money’s worth, and Bellini his due.
Maurizio Benini presided in the pit, and he was competent. The horns were unflubbing, which is always a bonus. There is plenty of choral work in I puritani, and the Met’s vaunted chorus was fine.
Alexey Markov, the baritone singing Riccardo, was fine too, but not nearly his best—not in Act I. His technique failed him, and he could not exploit his music.
On came Diana Damrau, to sing Elvira. Is there a more likable person in opera? (Damrau, I mean, not Elvira.) I doubt it. Damrau was wonderful as the pre-mad Elvira, girlish and coquettish. No one does girlish and coquettish better than Damrau. But her voice was on the thin and small side. She gave us a poor, un-Damrau-like trill.
The aria “Son vergin vezzosa” is right up her alley. And it had its proper character, for sure—Damrau is reliably musical, and has the theatrical sense to match. But it was not especially well executed, in vocal terms.
Our tenor, the Arturo, was Javier Camarena. He was commendable from the outset. The high notes had a nice pressure, if I may put it that way, and they also had pop. And whenever he could float, he was beautiful.
He wasn’t ugly when he pushed, mind you. But the tenorial beauty came out on floatable notes.
Camarena and Damrau seemed to enjoy singing together, and when they were high above the staff, entwining their voices, they put on a smile-making display of bel canto goodness.
Like Damrau, Luca Pisaroni is one of the most likable people in opera. He is full of charm, wit, and personality. But there is not much of a chance to express these qualities in Puritani’s Giorgio—Pisaroni’s role. Giorgio is earnest. Sober as a judge. Pisaroni sang well, but he did not seem quite Pisaroni to me.
So, Elvira goes mad. And when Damrau suffers, you suffer. She did not deliver a harrowing or horrifying mad scene. She delivered a rather sweet and pitiable one—which was very effective.
As the opera wore on, the cast in general got better. And that definitely included Mr. Markov. In the orchestra, I might mention the trumpet, who has a chance to shine.
You might not think of the trumpet as an opera instrument. You would be right. But there is a place for it, of course, in opera. A few years ago, I interviewed Andris Nelsons, the conductor who heads the Boston Symphony Orchestra. When younger, he played trumpet in an opera orchestra.
“What music does a trumpet have in opera?” I asked. He answered, “Well, you do things like signal the arrival of people.”
In I puritani, Elvira and Arturo sing a final duet, which lifts the heart of an audience. Damrau and Camarena certainly did that. It was 11 o’clock, and it had been a long night. A lackluster night, in part. But the audience simply would not stop applauding, after that duet. They went on and on. And they were right to.
Finally, I’d like to say a word about the composer. In my opinion, composers often do not get enough credit. They are sort of taken for granted. Performers sometimes hold up the score—bear it aloft—in order to indicate, “Praise the composer.” Rostropovich used to do this (as for his friend Shostakovich).
The Met’s production of I puritani has a handsome screen with the title of the opera at the bottom. And at the top, “Vincenzo Bellini.” Yes, an extraordinary talent, dead at thirty-three, nine months after this opera’s premiere.