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Washington Concert Opera: I Puritani

I Puritani:
available at Amazon
Sutherland/ Pavarotti

available at Amazon
Callas/di Stefano
Washington Concert Opera presented the first half of their new season on Sunday night at an admirably full Lisner Auditorium. Rather than a more typical rarity, it was one of the gems of the bel canto repertoire, Vincenzo Bellini's late opera I Puritani, or as Anna Netrebko memorably put it, "crap." Don't get me wrong -- no one should ever mistake I Puritani for a dramatic masterpiece, but it does have some of the best, most polished, and most demanding music to come from Bellini's pen before his life was cut short. It is an odd choice for WCO, since productions of this opera are hardly rare: last season at the Met, this past summer at Opera Theater of St. Louis, Baltimore Opera in 2004, and even Washington National Opera in 2000.

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.

Other Reviews:

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)

Washington Concert Opera:

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)
Tenor Lawrence Brownlee (reviewed at Ionarts recently in recital and in a previous outing with WCO) continues to pile up awards for his extraordinary voice and gave an equally impressive rendition of Arturo. The role has an extremely difficult beginning, entering the stage with challenging music, and ends the evening with a duet featuring one of the highest notes ever written for a tenor. Only a small côterie of the best singers are able even to hit that high F (the one written on the top line of the treble clef staff), let alone make it sound relatively good, and Brownlee is firmly in that group. Arturo sings it more or less at the moment when the Puritans are about to execute him, so if the voice sounds a little panicky, that just adds to the drama of the moment. Most tenors usually sound like they are going to die (listen to the clip embedded below -- even Pavarotti goes into a beautiful falsetto, although many tenors remain in a mixed to full voice). Some know-it-all knucklehead in the audience had to yell "Bravo!" and start clapping before the orchestra had even stopped playing. In the future, we will know that you understand that note was high, sir, only if you start applauding immediately after it is sung.

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).


Anonymous said...

A word to the wise about Bianca e Falliero: there's a reason that it remains a rarity. It was given a full stage production a number of years ago by the Florida Grand Opera, and having sat through one of those performances, my essential reaction was, does bel canto have to be that boring?
Perhaps some of it was FGO's fault, but it seemed to have every stereotype of bad bel canto except the big soprano singing her head off to the footlights. (Which means it was better than my other "favorite" bel canto production, La Favorita at the Met with a big soprano who really did sing her head off to the footlights.)

Charles T. Downey said...

Point taken. However, the advantage of concert opera is that you do not have to worry so much about the silly plot and how to stage it. Did you find the music worthwhile at all?

Anonymous said...

Twenty years on, my only real memory is of many people looking extremely Carpaccio; of the music itself not a note has remained in my head. I only remember my general feeling: that bel canto was an acquired taste, and I had not yet acquired the taste, and the music seemed Rossini being mediocre. Now I might react more favorably; but to compare, my reaction to that Favorita was that it deserved a better revival, and hope for a better staging. My reaction to Bianca was to wonder why it was revived at all, and hope for a better Rossini.--(Kishnevi)

El Doctorcito said...

In Seattle here, we have seen a bit of Brownlee, and I agree that he often stands out. Florencia and L'Italiana especially. We will see him in I Puritani in May 2008.