The DVD of this performance is listed as 2011, but internal evidence suggests it was a few years before that – and indeed, the closing credits say 2007.
As the title indicates, this is an opera about Puritans. It is, however, a nineteenth-century Italian opera about Puritans, which means that certain kinds of interpretive spaces are opened up by the historical and cultural distance between subject matter and composer. These are the types of interpretive spaces that result in things like Puritans named Elvira. (I mean, it’s not like all Puritans were named things like Silence or Waitstill or Fearful. Some of them were named things like Richard or Elizabeth. I can even vouch for an Arabella and at least one Brilliana, so it’s not like Bellini couldn’t have found something Italian-ish sounding that his contemporaries would have thought pretty. Or maybe they thought “Elvira” was a really awesome name?)
In a sense, this is not really an opera about Puritans qua Puritans. After all, when Elvira’s boyfriend Arturo vanishes in the night (he’s loyal to the king and is helping the queen escape) Elvira does not stop and ask herself, as any good Puritan girl would, what she has done to deserve such misfortune. She doesn’t ask anything, as far as I can tell. She just goes mad. And one has to hand it to Anna Netrebko – she makes Elvira’s madness seem almost plausible. Elvira is not all sunshine and light when we first meet her. She seems unsure and confused when her uncle informs her that she will be marrying not Riccardo as she feared, but Arturo as she hoped; and at several points when Arturo shows up, her initial reaction is not unreserved glee, but rather uncertainty. And she is not the only one acting. This is not an opera populated by characters who have complex and many-layered motives (at least as far as I have ever been able to tell) but the whole cast really does give it the old college try, dramatically. (Also: that Netrebko is a charmer. At the very end, after the first curtain call, there is a brief shot of everyone backstage and she is literally bouncing up and down with excitement as someone mops her face off before she returns out to take another bow. There are not very many women of thirty-five or so who can pull that kind of thing off convincingly.)
The production itself is a conventional one. My favorite part of it was the first section of the second act (Elvira’s mad scene) which takes place in a cavernous hall with vaguely reddish walls – it is on the edge of looking interesting. The rest of it is just castle courtyards and gardens and stuff. Sometimes I wonder, in an age of special effects, why one would even try to make a stage resemble a real life scene in a literal way – it’s not going to, and it’s more interesting if you just accept that the space of the stage is a space, and you can do all kinds of really interesting things with that if you just take it and run with it. Go with the grain of the thing rather than against it, you know?
The performances themselves were nearly all excellent. I do not normally spend a great deal of time swooning for baritones (quot feminae tot sententiae, I guess) but I was impressed with Franco Vassallo as the spurned Puritan lover Riccardo. The sound is solid and quite nice to listen to, the acting is all right (again, as parts go, Hamlet this ain’t) and I was actually paying attention during Riccardo’s first aria in Act I, which is new for me with this opera. I also liked his snappy “let the trumpet sound” duet with Giorgio (John Relyea) in the second act.
The star of the show was, of course, Anna Netrebko. There are two points during the performance where we switch to Netrebko being interviewed in her dressing room by Renée Fleming, and poor Netrebko looks a little bit like she wishes this were over – Fleming asks her things like “what are you thinking during the mad scene?” or “emotionally, what is this like?” and one feels a certain amount of sympathy for Ms. Netrebko, in that she is being quizzed in a second language about things that are quite difficult to articulate in one’s first and doing so before she goes back on stage to sing some more difficult stuff. So I don’t blame her for not really answering the questions. It’s enough to see and hear what she actually does on the stage.
My first exposure to this opera was an old recording with Joan Sutherland as Elvira, and the version of “son vergin vezzoza” that I absorbed was Sutherland’s, which is characterized by a light-hearted exuberance and a focus on the slightly insane coloratura that makes one forget that this aria is part of a scene and as such involves a series of interactions with other characters. Netrebko takes it a little slower, and one does not forget that this is part of a scene and that there are other people in the room. The famous mad aria, “rendetemi la speme,” is fantastic if you like that kind of thing – it makes the last part of that scene, the sort of wrap-up with the chorus, seem superfluous. After that, enough has been said. (Though it does strike me that Netrebko’s “crazy Elvira” is hard to distinguish from, say, her “crazy Lucia di Lammermoor” – but this may be as much Bellini’s fault as anyone else’s.)
I don’t know if this is a video I will watch over and over again – actually, I am fairly sure that I won’t – but if you 1. are a rabid Anna Netrebko fan or 2. really, really like conventional staging, this one may be for you.