Saturday afternoon, May 3, the Metropolitan Opera performed Vincenzo Bellini’s “I Puritani” (The Puritans), a masterpiece in the bel canto style. Russian soprano Olga Peretyatko has been making headlines as Elvira—her Met debut—the role with not one, not two, but three mad scenes. Further, American tenor Lawrence Brownlee as Elvira’s love interest, Arturo (Lord Arthur Talbot), has done his share of show stopping in the same opera. The audience at the heavily sold matinée presentation nearly went mad in the final curtain calls.
It takes a solid quartet of singing actors adept in the florid style of bel canto to bring off “I Puritani” successfully. Completing the quartet were Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecień and Italian bass-baritone Michele Pertusi, in the respective roles of Riccardo (Sir Richard Forth), Arturo’s nemesis and rival in love for Elvira, and Giorgio (Sir George Walton), Elvira’s fatherly uncle.
Appearing briefly in Act I in the pivotal role of Queen Enrichetta (Henrietta), her life in danger, American mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop made the best of her duet and concerted numbers, her rich voice beautifully conveying her predicament. The Act I quartet, “Son vergin vezzosa” (I am the charming bride), found the queen, Arturo and Giorgio in luscious harmony, declaiming their lines as quiet staccato underpinning to the soprano’s vocal brilliance.
Mariusz Kwiecień dripped testosterone with aggressive posturing in conflict with Arturo, and his clarion voice completed his fully fleshed-out character’s persona. Though the orchestra tended to cover Michele Pertusi, his velvety legato went unmatched by the rest of the cast. Riccardo and Giorgio’s martial duet “Suoni la tromba” (Sound the trumpet), highly unusual in the operatic literature in that it joins two low voices, here created quite a frisson and brought Act II to a rousing close.
This boy-wants-girl, girl-wants-another-boy, girl-eventually-gets-the-boy-she-wants story is simple at its core. The complicated setting during the 1640s English civil war, intended to heighten emotions, often takes a backseat as the principal characters spin their lengthy lines of vocal gossamer filigree. This is one opera where the music is the foremost vehicle that often drives audiences into one crazed ovation after another, even as Elvira repeatedly sinks into madness onstage.
Olga Peretyatko let on early in Act I that Elvira could easily become unhinged, following a cue from eerie trombones that played three quiet ascending chordal tones. In the wretched Act I finale, her floated pianissimo notes—or, more accurately, mezza di voce—easily carried over the orchestra and the vocal ensemble, to heartbreaking effect. Her Act II scena, “Qui la voce sua soave … Vien, diletto” (Here his voice so smooth … Come, beloved), propelled her from one end of the stage to the other in convincingly creepy interaction with other characters and mercurial mood swings.
In Act III, when Arturo reveals the true identity of the mysterious prisoner of the fortress and explains he left Elvira at the altar to whisk Queen Henrietta away to safety, repeated trombone blasts helped bring Elvira almost to the brink of sanity once again. Olga Peretyatko made good use of her hands, holding her aching head and covering her ears as if overstimulated by too much input.
Lawrence Brownlee, having only Act I Scene 3 and Act III to establish his presence, sang an ardent “A te, o cara” (To you, my dear one), with crystalline ringing high notes. The final act has the potential to steadily build audience excitement with steadily increasing vocal pyrotechnics, especially by the tenor. “Vieni fra queste braccia” (Come to these open arms) includes two D’s above high C, which Lawrence Brownlee easily nailed. The duet ends on a high C, which soprano and tenor sustained endlessly, causing quite a ruckus among the public.
Ratcheting up the tension a notch, the high D in “Credeasi, misera! da me tradita” (The poor girl believed I had betrayed her) was again no problem for Lawrence Brownlee. He attacked the subsequent high F in full voice, not resorting to falsetto. Never mind the slight wobble, the audience loved it.
Italian maestro Michele Mariotti led the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra as if Bellini were second nature to him. Never did the score plod or lumber, not even in its more ponderous passages, but everything kept moving as if the orchestra were a single organism, equal partner to each singer onstage.
The Metropolitan Opera Chorus, always deserving of special mention, their Act II “Ah dolor, ah terrore” (Such pain, such terror) especially poignant in reaction to Elvira’s compromised mental state, were a standout in Act III’s “Credeasi, misera!” Throughout the opera, they formed an organic whole with the orchestra and the principal singers, never upstaging them.
The four principals received enthusiastic cheers, but judging by the roar from the audience and the applause, the afternoon clearly belonged to Lawrence Brownlee. Two performances remain.