Lyric Opera

Heaaad ’em up! Mooove ’em out! And the cast of Lyric’s I Puritani, a Bellini work that is the Italian equivalent of an old-fashioned Hollywood oater, lumbers dutifully back and forth across the stage.

The world that Bellini and his operas inhabited is long gone. It was a world in which a dashing, handsome, and not especially articulate opera composer occupied a place in bourgeois consciousness not unlike that of a modern athlete or actor–if Bellini were alive today we might see him endorsing imported wines. In the early-19th-century salons of Paris, he garnered the admiring sighs of beautiful and charming women, and the envy of wittier and homelier contemporaries such as Heinrich Heine.

Bellini was and is famous as the composer of formulaic operas that are long on melody and short on drama. I Puritani is his last work and represents an extreme realization of this formula. Set in England, the story is a rather unlikely encounter between members of the royalist and parliamentary parties after the death of Charles I. Elvira, daughter of a Puritan official, and the Cavalier Arthur are in love. Elvira’s father has consented to their marriage after the intercession of her understanding uncle, Sir George Walton. This has infuriated fellow Roundhead Sir Richard Forth, to whom Elvira was previously promised. Arthur blows it when he smuggles the soon-to-be-condemned Queen Henrietta out of captivity and Elvira thinks he has skipped with some brazen hussy. Elvira goes bonkers over her apparent jilting, and Sir Richard plans to dispose of his rival on the battlefield. Arthur turns up to explain himself to Elvira, which immediately restores her to rationality. Sir Richard relents, and a general pardon is issued to royalists. Everyone lives happily ever after. The end. Pretty thin gruel on which to nourish a grand opera.

Looking at this season’s schedule, one suspects that I Puritani is this year’s throwaway production. It has all the stigmata: one moderately big name star, an old and inexpensive production, a work not requiring massive musical forces, and no evidence of excessive rehearsal. This is not necessarily a condemnation, as sometimes the throwaways can be little gems more memorable than the big productions. And of course it isn’t possible for Lyric to mount a maximum effort every time.

In 1955 Lyric staged Bellini’s tale of the English civil war as a vehicle for Maria Callas, with Giuseppe Di Stefano as Arthur; it was heard again in 1969 with Margherita Rinaldi and Alfredo Kraus in these roles. On the vocal side, June Anderson–for whom I suspect the current production was mounted–was in no way a disappointment. Indeed, it would not be too much to say that she is the only thing this show has going for it. Her clear and open tone coupled with her fine coloratura technique carries the whole production. I suppose something should be said about her acting, but Bellini is most uncongenial to anything approaching true acting. Anderson’s mad scene works because she lets the music carry on without attempting histrionics.

Chris Merritt, however, is no Kraus or Di Stefano. His coloratura technique is virtually nonexistent, and while he manages to hit the high notes, it is by the means of a rather unpleasant falsetto head tone. Less power and more skill would serve him well. But the audience ate it up and seemed to notice neither his vocal deficiencies nor his clownish demeanor. Paul Plishka sang Uncle George; his bass was decent if a bit tired, and his handling of the second scene with Elvira was as close to acting as this production is likely to see. This is more impressive given that Plishka stepped in on short notice for the ailing Dimitri Kavrakos. For the most part the other voices were eminently forgettable. As Sir Richard Forth, Paolo Coni struggled for a deep tone he really doesn’t have. Herbert Perry did little with the role of Elvira’s father, and the pallid tones of Brad Cresswell did not breathe life into the role of Bruno Robertson. Nancy Maultsby’s performance as Queen Henrietta ran an unusual course: during her brief act-one appearance, her voice started open and clear and then changed to covered and muddy.

Lyric has commissioned a series of articles on operas since World War II for its programs this season. Through either chance or someone’s wicked sense of irony, the program accompanying I Puritani contains the second installment, which deals with the rise of the modern stage director as a major force in opera production. Nothing could be more old-fashioned than this mounting of Bellini’s last work. The set designs by Ming Cho Lee wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow in the time of the composer, being nothing more than a platform with ample space for the singers to stand up and belt it out and for the chorus and supernumeraries to march about. Still, they perform the most important function in a show such as this: they allow the singing to proceed with a minimum of fuss and require no contortions by the principals–in contrast to last season’s grotesque Lucia di Lammermoor.

The rendering of the score by Donato Renzetti and the Lyric orchestra was uninspired. Onstage the chorus proved adequate but not brilliant. And as noted above, the direction by Sandro Sequi is of the cattle-drive variety, which would have made the audiences who saw Callas in 1955 feel right at home. Weep not for the old-fashioned methods of opera direction; they are alive and well.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Tony Romano.