I have difficulty getting too excited about Bellini. This particular opera, I Puritani, can be a crowd pleaser – certainly the audience in Bologna does its fair share of yelling and stamping – but I admit, my attention sometimes wandered. It’s challenging music, and part of the fun is watching everyone nail the hard parts, but I don’t get sucked in the way I do with, say, Strauss. (I wonder if that’s the key to the popularity of some operas – it’s not that they tend to result in profound or deeply moving music-making, but that it’s genuinely a kick when someone can manage “rendetemi la speme” convincingly. Sort of like watching the Olympics, you know? I’ve never been moved to tears even by, say, really ace pole-vaulting, but it’s entertaining seeing humans launch themselves into the air like that.)
That said, I realized while watching this that if I had to pick, I would probably break for Bellini’s orchestral music over, say, Donizetti’s. I have always liked the way the overture begins, with that quick series of chords that doesn’t quite reveal its rhythm right away. I like more energy to these than Michele Mariotti and the orchestra provide here (it seemed a little staid – I mean, there’s supposed to be a Civil War on, right?) but the pattern itself is quite distinctive. You wouldn’t get it mixed up with any other opera I can think of. There are also a few moments, e.g. during Elvira’s first scene with her uncle, where you get some patterns in the orchestra where things in 4/4 or 2/4 or whatever are overlaid on an accompaniment in some variety of 3 – but then as if this sort of thing was a bit too dangerous for a bel canto opera, the orchestral music soon breaks for the more comfortable oompa-oompa pattern that sometimes renders this opera unintentionally funny. (I submit that “son vergin vezzosa” is one of the great accidentally comic set-pieces of the nineteenth century, especially when taken at breakneck speed which (un)fortunately does not happen here.) I found myself paying attention to the orchestra again in Act III during the storm music and again a little later during the “we’re going to find that royalist!” chorus as the Parliamentarians pursue Arturo. I also enjoyed a lot of the ensembles, e.g. the Riccardo / Arturo / Enrichetta trio towards the end of Act I, Riccardo and Giorgio’s duet at the end of Act II, and the “credeasi, misera” section near the opera’s finale. The opera is a bit silly in places – a lot of places – but it’s certainly not a waste of time.
At the same time, this is not one of those pieces that readily lends itself to great subtleties of interpretation. I haven’t seen it very many times, but although it can be fun, I have yet to hear a performance that made me think that the opera (or some specific aspect of it) was about something that I hadn’t realized it was about. Whenever I say something like this, I am always afraid that I have missed something – maybe Bellini is as good as Verdi and I just have failed to notice – but, well, like I said, I haven’t seen it that many times. Maybe there’s a DVD out there somewhere that will change my thinking about this. I want someone to give it the total Regie treatment. Has Doris Dörrie ever done I Puritani? Maybe it could be set among a group of Civil War re-enactors, thus playing about with the fact that its actual connection to history is somewhat tenuous?*
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*English Civil War re-enactors. Although if ours want to take a crack at it, I would certainly lay down my dollars to see Union Elvira and her dashing but kind of up himself Confederate beau Arthur, who frees political prisoner Robert E. Lee, who has cleverly disguised himself in a hoopskirt to evade General Grant, and at the end, all the hoopla about patriotism and love of country and let’s-forget-about-the-political-content-of-what-just-happened is watched with some skepticism by the newly freed former slaves, who are not convinced that simply making all the rich people happy is going to solve everyone’s problems. The action can take place in Missouri, which will allow for a convincing placement of a union household in an area where confederates are also lurking.