Chicago Opera Review: I PURITANI (Lyric Opera)

by Barnaby Hughes on February 6, 2018

in Music,Theater-Chicago

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BELLINI’S BEL CANTO BRITISH BALLAD

After the questionable orientalism of Bizet’s Pearl Fishers and Puccini’s Turandot, Lyric audiences can now enjoy Vincenzo Bellini’s I Puritani (The Puritans), a cultural encounter of a different kind. It is an Italian opera composed for a French audience and set during the English Civil War. This is perhaps not so strange as might first appear. English history and literature have proved to be surprisingly fertile ground for Italian opera, giving us Verdi’s Shakespeare adaptations and Donizetti’s Tudor cycle, just to name a few outstanding examples.

Lyric Opera’s latest Bellini production is almost as impressive as last year’s Norma. While both feature(d) fantastic casts and beautifully-rendered sets and costumes, I Puritani suffers a bit from age. First created for the Metropolitan Opera in the 1970s, this production features a rather unwieldy set that results in slow scene changes. (This reviewer is beginning to wonder what happened to all the expensive stage equipment purchased last year. We’ve seen very little of it so far this season.)

Less a tale about Puritans than a vehicle for romance and patriotism, I Puritani centers on a marriageable young noblewoman with the very un-English name Elvira. She had previously been promised to Sir Riccardo Forth, who loves her, though she loves Lord Arturo Talbot instead. Honoring his daughter’s heart, Sir Giorgio Walton releases Elvira from his promise to Riccardo and prepares to celebrate her wedding to Arturo. When Royalist Arturo discovers that Queen Enrichetta is the Puritans’ prisoner, he quickly spirits her away to safety. Thinking she has been abandoned for another woman, Elvira goes mad. Riccardo then condemns Arturo for treason and tries to capture him. In the end, the lovers are reunited and marry, Arturo having been pardoned.

Charismatic tenor Lawrence Brownlee, seen last season in recital with Eric Owens, headlines I Puritani’s talented cast as the hero Arturo. When he appears onstage for the first time in the middle of Act I, the production suddenly gets more interesting and exciting, as it does again when he opens Act III. Despite his diminutive size, Brownlee’s presence, energy, and soaring vocals easily command the audience’s attention and grip their emotions.

Not to be outdone by Brownlee, Albina Shagimuratova reprises her title role from last season’s Lucia di Lammermoor as yet another wronged woman gripped by madness. This time, however, she gets a happy ending. Her performance as Elvira once again shows the soprano’s mastery of bel canto technique with its florid vocal lines and virtuosic coloratura and cadenzas. Shagimuratova particularly shines in Act II’s mad scene singing “Qui la voce sua soave.” Adrian Sâmpetrean’s Giorgio and Anthony Clark Evans’ Riccardo follow this scene with the opera’s most beautiful duets, their voices blending seamlessly and harmoniously.

Ming Cho Lee’s expansive and traditional sets blend well with Peter J Hall’s period-perfect costumes to recreate the mid-seventeenth century in all its Puritan simplicity and Royalist glory. Director Eric Einhorn does his best with the cast and sets he has been given, even sending actors up and down the aisles, something rarely witnessed at Lyric. Nevertheless, Einhorn’s direction occasionally falls back on stodgy, stationary singing, as if the audience has come for a recital rather than a dramatic staging. Fortunately, the Lyric Opera Chorus livens up each act with Bellini’s boisterous choruses and plenty of movement.

Although there is little to dislike in this production of I Puritani, there is much to love, from Brownlee’s charismatic performance as the noble Arturo to Bellini’s memorable score with its deceptively simple melodies. In this, Italian opera makes English history and literature more attractive and compelling than even Britain’s own composers.

photos by Todd Rosenberg and Andrew Cioffi

I Puritani
Lyric Opera of Chicago
Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive
ends on February 28, 2018
for tickets, call 312.827.5600 or visit Lyric Opera

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Natalia Dagenhart February 9, 2018 at 7:45 am

Such a great review, thank you very much!

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