Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

I Puritani I: Sopranos

Three titles by Vincenzo Bellini have been presented during the Met’s 2013-14 season. This feast for Belliniphiles is unprecedented in the company’s history. Each of the operas has featured at least one excellent individual performance, sometimes more. In the first cast of Norma, only Sandra Radvanovsky’s Druid priestess met the measure; in the second cast, Angela Meade found a worthy partner in Jamie Barton for the crucial Norma-Adalgisa duets. I reported on the very satisfying La Sonnambula in my April 6 post. I Puritani will be broadcast this coming Saturday, May 3.

When the 1976 Puritani production was new, Ming Cho Lee’s sets were meant to look like 19th-century pastel illustrations; Sandro Sequi’s direction recalled with affection the attitudes of 19th-century divas and divos. The subtle lighting and the texture of the show have degraded over time. At the premiere of the April 17 revival, the staging of the ensemble consisted of choristers moseying on and off the stage; some principals reacted to the drama with intent, others with standard gesticulation. The Elvira, Olga Peteyatko, a highly touted Russian coloratura, made her Met debut. She sang with clean fioriture (minus a fully developed trill), attention to the text and the theatrical moment. Yet for me, the full frisson was missing. Peteyatko’s agreeable tone lacked individuality; her acting was no more than acceptable. In the inevitable comparison with her most recent predecessor, Anna Netrebko is off the mark in dexterity, lacking even a rudimentary trill, but she sings much of the role beautifully and creates a riveting character. Peteyatko’s Arturo, Lawrence Brownlee, met his role’s daunting demands with courage and accuracy but without his customary ease. His beautiful tenore di grazia, so effective in Rossini, was sometimes stressed by Belllini’s more strenuous Arturo.

The Met’s first Puritani was presented during the company’s inaugural season, 1883-84, but only once. The most influential reviewers, confirmed Wagnerites, were dismissive of the bel canto repertory although fulsome in praise for the Elvira, Marcella Sembrich. I did not include an example of her singing in my post on Sonnambula. Her recording of Elvira’s “Qui la voce” and its cabaletta “Vien diletto” gives more pleasure and a better sense of her voice and her formidable technique.


The return of Puritani to the repertoire in 1918 marked a turn in the fortunes of bel canto: the critical establishment that had excoriated Bellini had begun to acknowledge his genius. The superb Met cast apparently did full justice to the score. To judge by this recording of Maria Barrientos, the Elvira, it must have been quite a night. Note: I suggest that you lower the volume for this excerpt.


Maria Callas was responsible for the resurrection of many bel canto operas in the mid-20th century. I Puritani had special significance for her. At the beginning of her career in Italy, she was known as a dramatic soprano. In January 1949, she was engaged in Venice for Brünnhilde. The conductor of the Wagner, Tullio Serafin, knew Callas’s voice and asked her to step in for an indisposed colleague just five days before the first night of Puritani. She had never sung the role of Elvira. She learned it on the spot—and the Valkyrie had found her true calling in the bel canto world. For the full impact of her dark, tragic Elvira, listen to this live excerpt from the May 29, 1952 performance in Mexico City, site of early international triumphs for Callas. She emerges clearly from the aural mess and prevails against a conductor who merely beats time and a chorus that seems to be sight-reading. This is the finale to Act I, the first of Elvira’s three mad scenes.


To Joan Sutherland goes a large measure of the credit for the renewal of interest in I Puritani at the Met. The 1976 production mounted for her has been followed by five revivals. Here she is in 1962, in Elvira’s entrance aria.

My next post will treat Puritani tenors and basses.

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