Bel canto operas, like Bellini's I puritani, which opened at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis this past Thursday night, are flimsy things. Their plots are merely excuses for vocal acrobatics by the best voices an opera company can hire, kidnap or con. And Charles McKay and OSTL have outdone themselves on this one.
Vincenzo Bellini was excited by the story behind I puritani: "I have great hopes for this subject, which will make a profound impression when joined to my melancholy muse," he wrote.
Bellini's muse must have worked overtime. He wrote two versions. A massive, bombastic three-and-a-half-hour paean to Italian nationalism has been the standard version since its wildly successful 1834 Paris debut. The second version was composed to fulfill a commitment to provide a showcase for soprano Maria Malibran at Naples' Opera San Carlo. Bellini had to excise all the political stuff to get the play past royal censors, so the "Naples" version is shorter, crisper and much more dramatically coherent. It's a showcase for a soprano, two tenors, and the composer's most graceful and expressive melodies.
Bellini's work arrived in Naples late, as international mail was stalled by a cholera epidemic. Both the composer and Malibran died before the "Naples" version could be staged. Never performed or published, it was lost for 150 years. After some musical detective work, Opera Theatre's music director and conductor Stephen Lord and bel canto scholar Philip Gossett unearthed the "Naples" I puritani for a Boston premiere in 1992. The St. Louis production is only the second American staging of this version. We're lucky to have it.
Lord has long been a singer's conductor. He insinuates natural breathing space into melodies to allow vocalists creative room. This is particularly important in the bel canto style, which is all about embellishment. As Opera Theatre's rehearsal pianist Curt Pajer puts it, "In bel canto, if the singer just sings the notes on the page, we can all go home early." We also have Lord to thank for this English translation. His word choices and meter display the same sensitivity to the needs of singers as his conducting.
Pajer also notes that one reason I puritani is rarely performed is the versatility it demands of the singers. In Pamela Armstrong, Opera Theatre has found a soprano who's up to the task. She sings the part of Elvira, who descends into madness when she mistakes her fiancé's devotion to his queen as infidelity and then ascends from that madness when she discovers that he's still true to her. (Which, by the way, is the entire plot of the opera.) Armstrong has a field day stretching, squeezing, coddling and caressing the vowels in Lord's elegant libretto and the notes in Bellini's painfully beautiful melodies. She is capable of show-stopping flights of vocal pyrotechnics.
She's a fine team player, too. Armstrong's duets with mellifluous bass Arthur Woodley, who sings kindly Uncle Giorgio, go down like sweet tea on Derby Day. Woodley's slyly minimalist approach allows Armstrong to percolate over his unerring support. The same goes for her vocal pairings with tenor Frédéric Antoun as her lover. Antoun was under the weather (allergies) the night I saw the show and backed off the true bel canto moments during his arias, but he brought his "A" game as a supporting singer. His work with Armstrong was redolent of passion, then pathos, followed by beaucoup more passion.
Tenor John Osborn is outstanding as Riccardo, Elvira's jilted ex-fiancé. He also takes advantage of the opportunities he's given to embroider the tunes. Osborn sings with conviction, assurance and a genuinely stirring dramatic sense.