Opera Review: I Puritani - Welsh National Opera at Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff ✭✭✭✭✭

   I PURITANI            
Vincenzo Bellini
Rosa Feola and Barry Banks

Welsh National Opera at the WMC 

Review by Sebastian Petit

4th October 2015: What a frustrating work Bellini’s “I Puritani” is! Musically it flows with invention and some of the finest, yearning, ineffably sad music that Bellini wrote putting it on a level with “Norma” and “I Capuleti”. But, alas, it is saddled with an absolute dog of a libretto which forces a ludicrous about-turn happy ending at the last minute with a Royal Messenger, seemingly borrowed from John Gay’s “The Beggar’s Opera”, effecting a scaffold reprieve in the nick of time. Mysteriously he knows exactly where to find the hero despite the fact that it has taken the remainder of the Roundheads three months to lay hands on him!

Despite this problem laying almost insuperable problems at the door of any director hoping for even a modicum of verisimilitude the opera is far more regularly revived than some of Bellini’s other masterworks because the music is so fine. While the parts are certainly fiendishly demanding they do not present the near insoluble problem of the superhuman diva required to fill the central role in “Norma” (or that of the unsympathetic tenor lead, for that matter).

Rosa Feola
Any director taking on the work has to decide whether to opt for picture book traditionalism or to try to achieve a cogent dramatic framework on which to hang Pepoli’s shaky structure. Fortunately Annelise Miskimmon opted for the latter. I should, in the interests of balance, note that several of the older members of the audience close to me were far less enthusiastic than me. Clearly the Aspic Opera Preservation Society is still flourishing. Miskimmon re-imagined the work as split between the reality of a grim Northern Irish Orangemen hall and the fractured fantasy of the heroine imagining a romantic Civil War liaison between Roundhead daughter and dashing Cavalier. As this fantasy takes over the walls of Leslie Travers’ ingenious set splinter and close in. In act 2 we are wholly in the twilight world of Elvira’s fantasy gone wrong and the small hall has become monstrous and stained black. In Act 3 we return to the realism of the original setting before her world is irrevocably broken on the wheel of sectarian violence. Miskimmon alters the unconvincing happy end to a full blown tragedy as Arturo is murdered and Elvira is left alone, madly singing of her happiness at his return. A liberty? Yes, but one which I found wholly convincing and left me emotionally shattered. I suspect Bellini who wanted people to “die with singing” might actually have approved.

As any Bel Canto opera, Puritani stands or falls on its principals especially the prima donna. WNO have been fortunate enough to engage the hugely promising Rosa Feola as Elvira and she is pretty much perfect. She has the technique, range and fluidity and she is an utterly compelling actress. She is slightly reminiscent of Dessay onstage and has a similar complete engagement with the role. There was also a moment near the beginning of Act 2 when, singing offstage, she sounded so like Sutherland as to be positively uncanny. But she is absolutely her own artist and I cannot wait to hear her in other bel canto roles soon.

Barry Banks is a known quantity in this sort of role but that is not in any way to diminish his achievement as Arturo. He commanded the stage whether in glorious, silver Cavalier silks or considerably less glamorous 70’s flares. His voice rises easily and sweetly to all the (many) high notes that Bellini wrote for Rubini. For the record he did not, on this occasion, attempt the ludicrous top F in Act 3. I have never heard any tenor (even Pavarotti) make anything beautiful of it so I missed it not at all.

David Kempster
David Kempster is far more comfortable in Verdi than bel canto but, once past his opening aria, he made much of the hazily written Riccardo. As always his acting was wholly convincing as he vacillated between the light and dark paths offered to him. His trumpet duet with the excellent, smooth voiced Giorgio of Wojtek Gierlach was a stirring highlight. Incidentally, did we really need a full interval between act 2 and 3? Obviously the set had to change but stopping for a full 20 minutes was surely unnecessary and sacrificed much of the tension build up over the preceding act.

The chorus and orchestra were in splendid form under that prince of bel canto, Carlo Rizzi. Indeed one might well ask why he so infrequently seen at Covent Garden when they continue to engage a certain incompetent time beater (who is due to cast his dead hand over the new production of Lucia at that address) every season. 

Meanwhile I would urge all lovers of fine singing to rush to see this production. Feola’s exceptional Elvira is worth the price of admission alone.

5 stars ✭✭✭✭✭

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