All of those stagings are not due to the allure of the absurd libretto by Carlo Pepoli, derived from Sir Walter Scott's 1816 novel Old Mortality. Seeing it staged does little to make the love story of a mentally unstable Puritan girl and a Stuart-royalist cavalier any more plausible, although on a musical basis alone the mad scenes are impossible to distinguish from any other scene in the opera. (By the same token, there is little separating the witches of Macbeth musically from the chorus of puritans.) No, what has brought listeners back to this opera ever since its premiere, in 1835 at the Théâtre Italien in Paris, is the demanding roles of Elvira and especially Arturo. Once again, conductor Antony Walker, the leader of Australia's adventurous Pinchgut Opera and since 2006 also the music director of Pittsburgh Opera, brought together a cast of powerful and beautiful voices for an extraordinary evening of music.
The outstanding cast not only sang all of Bellini's outrageous high notes and impossibly difficult fioriture, they did so with panache and elegance. Soprano Sarah Coburn was a slender, blonde vision in an amber gown, with a gorgeous coloratura technique, floating pure and piercing high notes over full textures. Her thrilling performance of Qui la voce and the other demanding arias of this role is a reminder of how bel canto arias, especially the cabalette, should be delivered. Unlike Anna Netrebko's visually pleasing but musically sloppy performance at the Met last season, Coburn had the technique to make every note in each run heard clearly, not just a smear of five or six per octave. True, Coburn's Italian vowels crept toward American pronunciation, and her tone could become a little warbly and precious at times, but overall this was a stunning performance.
Tom Huizenga, Chamber Opera's 'I Puritani': An Unadulterated Pleasure (Washington Post, September 25)
Tim Smith, Opera's memorable 'I Puritani' (Baltimore Sun, September 25)
Rossini, Otello (May 1, 2007)
Handel, Orlando (November 11, 2006)
Rossini, Tancredi (April 6, 2006)
Puccini, Il Tabarro / Mascagni, Cavalleria rusticana (November 1, 2005)
Verdi, Luisa Miller (June 9, 2005)
Massenet, Esclarmonde (April 9, 2005)
Brownlee's voice was consistently suave and accurate, forming an exceptionally fine mixture with Coburn and the other voices in the great quartet A te, o cara. The two leads were beautifully supported by the exceptional bass of David Pittsinger (Sir Giorgio), all velvety smoothness, and the blustery, stentorian baritone of Stephen Powell as Sir Riccardo. What a nice surprise to hear mezzo-soprano Magdalena Wór, who has impressed Ionarts before in recital and as a young artist with Washington National Opera. Her coffee-dark voice and elegant stage presence were an embarrassment of riches in the small role of Enrichetta. The orchestra put together by Walker had some fine moments, especially from the horn and trombone sections in Suoni la tromba, and gave an excellent stormy introduction to Act III. The chorus, however, sounded underpowered on the male side and under-rehearsed in general, missing an entrance or two. Another blemish was that the hideous electronic organ was back, stray notes and all, for the hymn scene at the opening of Act I.
While you will have to wait until April 13, 2008, for the next performance of Washington Concert Opera, it is another Rossini rarity, Bianca e Falliero, with Vivica Genaux, Anna Christy, and Teddy Tahu Rhodes. Until then, you will have to content yourself with hearing Antony Walker at the helm of Choral Arts Society for an Evening of Russian Music with powerhouse soprano Alessandra Marc (October 28, 7:30 pm) and Lawrence Brownlee's recital at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington (March 1, 8 pm).