BELLINI MASTERWORK IN VIBRANT PERFORMANCE
By Lawrence Budmen
The bel canto operas of Vicenzo Bellini (1801-1835) are endowed with an endless font of inspired melodies. In many ways Bellini's writing is the vocal equivalent of the keyboard music of Frederic Chopin (1810-1849). (Chopin's works are pianistic bel canto. The lives and careers of both composers were fairly contemporaneous.) Elegance and elasticity of musical line are essential requirements for artists who attempt the challenge of these composers' music. The daunting technical demands of bel canto opera - particularly the works of Bellini - have resulted in infrequent performances in recent years. Bellini's final opera "I Puritani" (1835) is his masterpiece. Perhaps "Norma" is more historically important but "I Puritani" called forth an endless profusion of gorgeous melodies. Unfortunately the libretto (by Carlo Pepoli) is a confused Romantic melodrama about the English civil war of the 17th century - Oliver Cromwell and Parliament vs. Royalists of the Stuart monarchy, Puritans vs. Episcopalians and even the French Queen (a Roman Catholic). The inscrutable dramaturgy is redeemed by Bellini's profusion of beautiful areas and elegant, graceful choral and orchestral writing. The Palm Beach Opera presented a vibrant production of this bel canto milestone on January 28, 2005 at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach, Florida, USA.
The Palm Beach production took an act to catch fire. Part of the problem was director Linda Brovsky's stock melodramatic staging and awkward grouping of the chorus on a raised platform across the rear of the stage. The set for Act 1 by designer Ming Cho Lee was a cramped staircase with landscape and a church tower in the distance - thoroughly unconvincing and difficult for the singers to navigate. The Great Hall set of the second act was appropriately palatial (and gorgeous in flaming red) and the lovely outdoor terrace of Act 3 was a charming pastoral backdrop for the final scene. The costumes by Peter J. Hall were appropriately dark and formal. Stephen Ross's lighting was particularly effective in the interior scenes (as when he bathed the Great Hall in streaming colors). Brovsky's direction, however, remained stilted throughout the production. Despite the problematical libretto, a director can clarify this work's emotional relationships (as Tito Caopobianco did so brilliantly in his production for the New York City Opera in the 1980's).
In the post Callas-Sutherland-Sills era (after the brief reign of June Anderson), exponents of the role of Elvira (with its dazzling coloratura demands) have been few and far between. The brilliant Edita Gruberova and the gifted American lyric-coloratura Ruth Ann Swenson have attempted the role with varying degrees of success. The Russian soprano Olga Makarina is an Elvira out of another era. Before the vocal glory of Callas and Sutherland, sopranos with lighter timbres often sang bel canto roles. Lina Paglughi, Lily Pons, Alda Noni, and Roberta Peters gave stellar performances of "Lucia di Lammermoor" and other bel canto scores. Makarina's charming stage presence and light, silvery voice were often enthralling. Her "Qui la voce" had glittering coloratura and precise vocal control. She brought real pathos to Elvira's mad scene - the one moment when the problematical drama came alive. Her thrilling rendition of the final duet (with tenor Eric Cutler) brought the evening to an exciting conclusion. Makarina's often brilliant singing became the production's central focus. With credits that include New York's Metropolitan Opera ("Rigoletto," "Le Rossignol," "Il Pirata") and St.Petersburg's Kirov (Donna Anna in "Don Giovanni" under Valery Gergiev), Makarina is a major talent!
The tenor role of Arturo Talbot is one of the most difficult in the repertoire. Bellini's high lying vocal writing is merciless. (It should be remembered that in the composer's day, the pitch was lower - thereby making sustained use of the upper register artistically feasible.) Giuseppe DeStefano came to vocal grief in his recorded attempt at the role. In the 1960's Nicolai Gedda and Alfredo Kraus were vocal paragons - artists who sang Arturo and other Donizetti-Bellini roles with fearless assurance. In his prime years in the 1970's Luciano Pavarotti teamed up with Sutherland for some legendary performances of "I Puritani." Early in their careers, the American tenors John Aler and Chris Merritt gave vocally brilliant, memorable performances of this demanding role. (The New York City Opera's 1981 production was a landmark event. Four singers at their vocal best - Anderson, Merritt, Richard Fredericks, and Justino Diaz; idiomatically conducted by Theo Alcantara.) The young American tenor Eric Cutler - the Palm Beach Arturo - is a real vocal discovery! A graduate of the Metropolitan Opera's Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, Cutler has devoted his career mostly to Mozart tenor roles. He was clearly nervous and missed the high F in his opening aria "A te, o cara" but sang with increasing confidence as the evening progressed. His elegant musicality, exciting high tones, and idiomatic squillo sound mark him as an artist to watch. In his final scene with Ms. Makarina, Cutler sang with power, ease, and Italianate fervor. In a day of over hyped tenors, Cutler may be the genuine article - a wonderfully endowed artist of artistic taste and conviction.
The important baritone role of Ricardo Forth requires a singer with a suave, voluminous voice of great flexibility. Davide Damiani produced a constricted sound; his pitch frequently wavered. He failed to command the cantilena of the opening scene (in which he was given little support by the voiceless Bruno Robertson of tenor Mark Antonio Sayih). While he improved in later acts, his constant vocal scooping and unattractive sound proved less than adequate in a role that requires the talents of a Gobbi or Milnes in full bloom. One of Damiani's best efforts was the duet "Suoni la tromba" where he was paired with the stalwart bass of Rosendo Flores as Giorgio Walton. (Richard Stotzel provided a brilliant, clarion trumpet obbligato.) Flores unfurled a deep voice of molten richness with firm, perfectly placed low notes. His beautiful basso cantante is the very essence of bel canto - a wonderful voice of great agility and flexibility. His scenes with Ms. Makarina were frequently riveting! As the disguised French Queen Enrichetta Elizabeth Blake sang with a warm, lovely mezzo-soprano voice.
The strong choral and orchestral forces gave a fine performance of Bellini's beautiful ensemble writing. The Palm Beach Opera Orchestra (led by former Cincinnati Symphony concertmaster Eliot Chapo) played splendidly with particularly incisive strings and brilliant brass. Karen Dixon offered sweet toned, elegantly crafted flute solos. Conductor Kamal Khan (a former James Levine assistant) conducted a lively, precise performance. What this performance lacked was what the late conductor Antonio De Almeida once defined as "that exquisite sense of bad taste" that Italian conductors can bring to this music. That extra idiomatic affinity for bel canto was missing.
"I Puritani" is a milestone of the early 19th century operatic repertoire and a monumental undertaking for any opera company. While the Palm Beach Opera version was imperfect, it offered superior choral and orchestral contributions. The Elvira and Arturo of Olga Makarina and Eric Cutler gave promise of great performances to come. The beautiful voices of these two young artists define bel canto!