I keep trying with Bellini’s I Puritani. People I respect admire it a lot but I just cannot find a way to like it despite there being, undoubtedly, some very fine music in Acts 2 and 3. I think there are, essentially, two problems and I could maybe cope with either in isolation but taken together my brain just starts to turn off. The first is plot and there are two huge problems with this piece. It’s complete garbage historically. It makes Donizetti’s Tudor operas look like Geoffrey Elton. But worse, it makes no sense in it’s own terms. It’s just a string of improbable coincidences. The second problem is emotional dissonance. Too often the emotional tenor of the music is just way inappropriate to the stage action. This is common to all bel canto of course and on its own I can deal. I just can’t take the two things together.
So, in reviewing the production recorded at the Teatro Real in Madrid in 2016 I’ve tried to overcome my prejudices and be objective about what’s on the disk but may not have entirely succeeded. Let’s look first at Emilio Sagi’s production. I think he’s caught the Game of Thrones bug that’s doing the rounds. The men are all dressed in vaguely Germanic early 20th century military uniforms with floor length, shiny black coats over the top with fur trimmings. They carry medieval pattern swords. The women of the chorus look vaguely Puritan in white bonnets. Elvira wears white; wedding dress and night gown and wrap. I’m not sure why she is wandering around a snowy forest in Act 3 in her nightgown but she is. Then there is Enrichetta. She has apparently decided that disguising herself as Elizabeth I in a shinier version of the Armada Portrait outfit will be a nicely inconspicuous way of Not Being The Queen.
Dramatically it’s not especially radical. The female chorus spend much of the time in a gallery surrounding the stage on three sides. There’s lots of snow; inside as well as outside which is a bit odd. In Act 2 Elvira enters apparently carrying the moon which she puts in a bird cage and drags around the stage. She also excitedly turns on a lot of chandeliers. In Act 3 the appearance of the Herald is really, remarkably, deus ex machina like which I think is not inappropriate. The Parliament’s Messenger comes seldom. The main thing that’s noticeable is a serious case of overacting, especially by Diana Damrau as Elvira, though Annalisa Stroppa as Enrichetta is pretty much the same. One could play several games of stock opera acting gestures bingo. Fortunately, the men are largely immune though Ludovic Tézier’s Riccardo has a range that goes from glower to glowerier. Overall it doesn’t seem to have any ideas or insights but it’s not particularly annoying either.
I have mixed feelings about the singing. Javier Camerena as Arturo is superb throughout and perhaps especially in his 17 minute soliloquy at the start of Act 3. This is brilliant bel canto tenoring. Damrau sings extremely well at times. She’s excellent in the mad scene, with spot on coloratura, and in the duet with Camarena in Act 3 but to my ears sounds a bit strident at the beginning and end of the piece. I even wondered whether it was an artefact of the recording but it doesn’t seem to affect anyone else. Tézier, Nicolas Testé as Giorgio and Miklós Sebestyén as the father are all solid and accurate. Maybe Tézier is too solid. His big firm voice may be a bit much for the music, though apt I suppose, for the character. The chorus is good and so is the orchestra. No problems with Evelino Pidò’s conducting either.
The video direction by Jérémie Cuvillier is pretty decent. It’s not a complicated show to film though in places quite dark so hurrah for Blu-ray. One thing I did wonder about though is the amount of applause. I understand that one wants to record a live recording faithfully but there’s a lot of applause in this one and it’s often quite intrusive. At the end of the Act 3 duet it goes on for several minutes and Cuvillier, having shown everything there is to film inside the building, cuts to shots of the crowd watching on large screens outside the theatre! That’s a first for me.
Technically we are in standard modern Blu-ray territory with a very good quality picture and solid LPCM stereo and DTS-HD MA surround sound. There are no extras on the disk and the booklet offers only a synopsis and track listing. Subtitles are English, French, Spanish, German, Italian and Korean.
Overall there’s quite a lot to like here for fans of I Puritani but I can’t say it really adds much to the catalogue. The Netrebko/Met version may be dull visually but it’s probably dramatically better than this and it’s at least as good technically.