I often notice that no matter how well I think I know an opera, each time I see it I discover something new and wonderful. With Bellini's I Puritani, I continue to find new levels of ridiculousness.
Don't get me wrong: I love this opera. It just makes no sense. Why is Elvira the last person to know she's marrying Arturo? Her uncle persuaded her father, who told Riccardo, and obviously someone told Arturo because he's on his way, yet poor Elvira is moping about the castle because it's her wedding day and she thinks she's stuck with Riccardo. She's being fitted for her gown before her uncle finally tells her she gets to marry her true love. You can't fuck with a soprano's emotions like that; no wonder she's an hour away from losing her sanity. Unless the singing is fantastic, there just isn't much point in mounting this work.
Which brings me to Seattle Opera's current production. I have little expectation that I will ever hear Bellini's last opera sung that well again. Even the chorus was amazing.
It wasn't totally flawless. Conductor Edoardo Müller's tempi were not always as energetic as they could have been, and throughout the evening there were ensemble issues, especially uncertain attacks in the orchestra and a lack of coordination between stage and pit. The orchestra sounded marvelous most of the time, however, aided by McCaw Hall's fantastic acoustics.
Soprano Norah Amsellem took on the role of the fragile heroine Elvira. She's not the most effective actress (admittedly, in Puritani she's got a lot working against her), and above the staff her voice has a tendency to sound swallowed; when chorus and orchestra are in full cry, even her highest notes don't cut through. Still, when she's hanging out all by herself, her high D's and E-flats are sustained effortlessly to the double bar, squarely on pitch. It is thrilling when the climax of the great scena "Qui la voce" is sung with such total security.
Bass John Relyea had a great night as her uncle Giorgio. With his rich, sonorous voice, he displayed incredible breath control and alignment in his aria, and tossed out a high G and even an A-flat at the end of the second act that would be the envy of many a baritone. His partner in that muscular duet, baritone Mariusz Kwiecien as Riccardo was...well, competent seems like a terrible word to apply to someone with such a beautiful voice and exemplary technique, but alas, he really is a very uninteresting performer.
Then there was Lawrence Brownlee as Arturo. There are tenors out there who can sing this impossible role; Brownlee, probably alone in the world, was born to. Good grief. "Secure" doesn't even begin to describe his technique. He is supremely musical, able to invest Bellini's long, sensuous lines with passion and elegance. His Italianate style and diction is spot-on; an extraordinarily round and warm "ah" vowel for such a high tenor. And speaking of high...
Forget the treacherous C-sharp in the opening aria, or the perilous D's in the oft-transposed (not this time!) third-act duet. I had read in the reviews of the premiere that he actually took the written F above high C in the final ensemble, a ridiculous, impossible tone that is almost always ignored for eminently practical reasons. I was hoping he'd try it again, dying of curiosity to hear what it would sound like. Well, he didn't "try." I don't want to make it sound like he daringly attempted this note. The man took a deep breath, raised his head, and released an absolutely astonishing, full-voice, sustained, perfect high F. Freakshow! Awesome.
Alas, if the intermission chatter was any indication, his overall impression was hampered somewhat by an unfortunate wig that made him look like James Brown and his diminutive stature. I tried to convince my companion that when you get someone who can sing like that, it doesn't matter what they look like. He's a fine-looking young man, just petite. It is true, though, that when he made his third act entrance wrapped in a cloak, it looked like there was a Hobbit onstage.
UPDATE: Someone YouTubed (audio only) Brownlee's high F from last night's performance! check it out!!!