THE OPERA CRITIC and administrator Lord Harewood once wrote that he would sometimes like to sacrifice a little of Bellini’s lyrical beauty for an extra helping of Donizetti’s dramatic talent. This approach is indicative of a common yet complete misunderstanding of Bellini’s genius, which is at its highest in moments of ecstatic stasis. Dramatic truth can be found in stillness as much as in movement. In Andreas Homoki’s new production of Bellini’s I Puritani for Zurich Opera (seen June 19), the continuous to-ing and fro-ing of the soloists and chorus provided us with yet another example of this misconception. Yes, we realize that in this opera a civil war is in progress and nerves may be on edge. But the amount of superfluous and unfocussed energy during the set pieces flew in the face of what makes a Bellini opera something special.
Fortunately, conductor Fabio Luisi’s understanding of this score is second to none and his Philharmonia Zurich gave him—and us—more than we have a right to expect in this world. “The dawn appears!” sang the chorus, responding to a gentle fanfare from the horns that spread through the theater on a cushion of tremolo strings with unmatched beauty. This is not only Bellini’s response to the libretto, but also an illustration of the dawn of Italian Romanticism as surely as was Weber’s Germanic equivalent in Der Freischütz, a few years previously.
In the minor roles, Liliana Nikiteanu (Enrichetta) impressed with her voice, Dmitry Ivanchey (Bruno) with his dramatic presence, and Wenwei Zhang (Lord Gualtiero Valton) with both. Zhang was indeed luxury casting. His imposing Banquo in Zurich’s recent Macbeth was proof of an artist that we are bound to hear a lot more of.
Romanian baritone George Petean was simply miscast as Riccardo Forth. His fine, dark voice belongs to middle and late-period Verdi; the elegance and precision of bel canto singing seemed beyond him. His smudged thirty-second notes in Riccardo’s beautiful lament were a case in point. These are not just decorations; Bellini, like Chopin immediately after him, integrated these fioriture into the structure as an essential part of the melodic line.
Michele Pertusi has been singing major roles for three decades, but his voice has retained its remarkable freshness, color and agility. In spite of all the up-and-down, in-and-out moving around that he was required to do, he managed to bring a warm, authoritative dignity to Elvira’s “second father,” Sir Giorgio.
The role of Arturo is famous—or infamous—for the almost impossible demands that Bellini makes on the upper reaches of the tenor voice. Lawrence Brownlee overcame the challenge brilliantly, singing with a feverish excitement that suited the production. His voice has a prominent rapid vibrato (almost like a trill) that takes some getting used to. At times one needed to hear the orchestral harmonies to tell us what note he was singing.
The sensation of the evening was Pretty Yende as Elvira. In the Act I polacca, in the famous mad scene of Act II and in the coruscating demands of Act III, she triumphed with ease while managing at the same time to be dramatically convincing. But the highlight of her performance was surely her heart-rending account of “Vieni al tempio”, her voice—at a punishingly high tessitura—riding the massed sound of soloists, chorus and orchestra. This was the sort of singing that Bellini famously said should make us “weep, shudder and die.” —Martin Wheeler