Vincenzo Bellini - I Puritani
Wiener Staatsoper, 2015
Marco Armiliato, John Dew, Jongmin Park, John Tessier, Carlos Álvarez, Olga Peretyatko, Sorin Coliban, Carlos Osuna, Ilseyar Khayrullova
Wiener Staatsoper Live at Home - 10 March 2015
No-one goes to see Bellini's I Puritani expecting a history lesson. I think you'd find it hard to recognise any realistic treatment or situation between the opposing Puritan and Royalist forces, and certainly not any great depth of insightful characterisation of their lives and motivations. If however you come to see I Puritani for a lesson in how to construct and put across a bel canto opera of a Romantic nature with all the trimmings, well then you're in the right place. The Vienna production of Bellini's final work is given an outstanding interpretation here, with Olga Peretyatko in the leading role showing what the real value of this work can be.
You might not get much of a history lesson, and the plot of I Puritani might appear ludicrous to the casual viewer, but there is - quite literally - method to the madness. I Puritani isn't about the English Civil War, but the setting is as good as any for an epic drama between two opposing forces. And it's not so much a conflict between Roundheads and Cavaliers here, as a war between men and women. This aspect is particularly marked in the Vienna production. In bold strokes certainly, but bold strokes that depict a greater subjective reality.
Essentially, I Puritani must be seen from the perspective of Elvira if it is to engage the audience and make any sense at all. Yes, there's a dramatic plot point that sees the Royalist Arturo risk the delicate alliance that he has established wth the Puritan Parliamentarians, by helping a Royalist prisoner escape. This moreover is not just any prisoner. Arturo has recognised that the captive is the queen herself, Henrietta. Although he is about to be married that day to Elvira, Arturo's loyalty to the queen and his sense of duty is more important. Using the veil from Elvira's wedding gown, he helps the queen escape past the guards, and leaves his bride-to-be in a bit of a state.
In broad strokes then, I Puritani is about the clash of love and duty, but specifically in the different values that that men and women attach to them. Arturo knows that his actions are not excusable, but they are credible in that they are determined by his sense of duty. In his mind, his duty towards his queen must take precedence over any personal consideration - there's no other choice he could have made. Seen in that light, Elvira's response to the masculine view towards duty and honour over private sentiments - the jilted woman disintegrating into full-blown insanity - would seem to be a bit of an over-reaction.
It's vital however to see things from Elvira's perspective. She doesn't know it was Queen Henrietta that Arturo has rescued, but even if she did know, the fact is not really relevant. She's not experiencing events in a political or historical context, but from an emotional one. In her mind, her husband-to-be, the man she loves deeply, has absconded with another woman, a woman who - in the ultimate betrayal - he has helped escape using her wedding veil. The historical background and fact that it is the Queen is relevant only to the audience in terms of scaling the enormity of this betrayal to Elvira's mindset. With the stakes set so high, it's not surprising that she goes mad.
The trick to making such a drama work is to completely draw the audience into that mindset. Bellini is able to score the work to elicit the necessary emotions and go some way to making it credible, but it must work on the stage as well. That means that you need an exceptional singer for Elvira - who is the primary focus and emotional barometer for the work - but you also need it to work in complete conjunction with a sympathetic musical interpretation and good stage direction. You can see that the cast are fully behind those personal dramas. They never appear to be larger-than-life historical figures, but creatures of delicate sensibilities and a firm sense of duty for what is right. It might not tell us much about the period, but it tells us a lot about the depth of human feeling. That's all there in Bellini's musical expression.
The stage itself them doesn't get bogged down in unnecessary historical accuracy either. Simply dressed, mostly dark, with only a few bold touches - huge beheaded statues - Heinz Balthes' sets speak of the conflict and give a sense of the scale that I Puritani works on. Bold colouration - usually associated with Elvira - is used to similar effect, while Olga Peretyatko, appears in the midst of all this in her white wedding dress a vision of perfection. That perfection becomes swallowed up in what is the only real expressionistic gesture in the stage direction. Evidently, that's during the 'mad scene' at the end of Act I, when Elvira's sense of order falls apart and she is caught up in a swirl of violent emotions.
The appropriateness of the stage direction and its ability to follow the mood becomes even more evident in Act II. There's no attempt to force the message home either in the stage direction or in the management of the orchestra. It takes its time and settles into the moment, letting it all just sink in. Sir George's description of the poor mad Elvira is just beautiful; sensitive to her plight, distraught at the cause of it (Arturo), highlighting in its own way the different male and female responses to the events that have occurred. Nothing significant happens in Act II, but between them Giorgio, Riccardo and Elvira make it really feel like it is the heart of the piece, which is what it ought to be.
As good as all this is, what really elevates the production and convincingly takes you into the heart of Elvira's dilemma and madness, is the outstanding performance of Olga Peretyatko. Peretyatko really is up there among the best in the world in some of the most challenging roles in the bel canto repertoire at the moment. Her delivery is confident but sensitive throughout. In the critical mad scene - where you really have to feel Elvira's predicament and her reaction is justified - she is not just technically accomplished to the highest level in her ornamentaion, but retains a wonderful lyricism in that lovely songbird quality that Peretyatko posesses in her voice. Demonstrating incredible control, she never overstretches or tips her performance over into full-blown hysteria.
Peretyatko's comanding central performance is, as demonstrated in Act II, well matched with solid and sensitive performances from Jongmin Park as Sir Giorgio and Carlos Álvarez as Sir Riccardo Forth. John Tessier is a little less steady as Arturo, but he has a bright timbre that is well-suited to the role, even if the high notes are a little beyond his range. It is an extremely difficult role, and not a sympathetic one, but Tessier does well to make his position credible. With such strong casting, good direction by John Dew, and the musical performance in the very capable hands of Marco Armiliato, the Vienna State Opera's production of I Puritani might not have been much of a history lesson, but it was a masterclass of Italian bel canto.
Links: Wiener Staatsoper Live Streaming programme; Staatsoper Live at Home video