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Bellini's "I Puritani" opened last night with the Gold Cast, which includes Norah Amsellem, Lawrence Brownlee, Mariusz Kwiecien, and John Relyea. This afternoon I heard the first performance of the Silver Cast.

For me the opera started out slowly, and I was considering leaving after the first act. I loved Morgan Smith's Don Giovanni last year, and he cut a fine figure as Riccardo, who was promised heroine Elvira's hand in marriage by her father, but who returned from war to find that he was un-promised her hand, since she, in the meantime, had fallen in love with a royalist, Arturo. He has a fine upper range, but his lower range sounded growly and unfocused. As Giorgio, Elvira's beloved uncle, and the force behind Elvira's father's change of plans for her, bass Denis Sedov started well, but then seemed to fade along with Eglise Guiterrez' in their opening scene together. Guiterrez has an amber, mezzo-like quality to her voice which I was afraid was going to be inflexible, and she was out-of-synch with the orchestra in the very beginning. (This happened intermittently with almost all of the principals and the chorus.) But then at the very end of the scene she floated a very non-flashy high note while twirling in circles with a dress, which gave me a smidgeon of hope, until tenor Bradley Williams made his entrance, and then I knew what I would miss if I left.

According to Speight Jenkins in the post-performance Q&A, the original Silver Cast Arturo pulled out six weeks ago. Arturo is not the kind of role that can be cast overnight, and after talking to agents in Europe and the US, Jenkins said he remembered that Williams had auditioned for him seven years before with "te o cara," Arturo's opening aria, and that his notes said that he liked it. But Williams is teaching voice currently at the University of Oklahoma, which, Jenkins said, usually means that he probably hadn't been performing much.

Williams has a high, light voice, one that I'd expect to hear in oratorios or religious singing. It's hard to invoke a lot of emotion with such a light tone, which doesn't have much color. However, Williams proved to be a wonderful stylist, which is how he imbued his performance with the color his voice lacked and with shading and nuance. He moved well on stage and was as believable acting-wise as a Bellini tenor can be. And if he can teach his students to go to high D and F as effortlessly as he did on stage, he will have proven himself to be a great teacher as well.

The orchestral sound was very rich. According to Jenkins, there are five French horns alone, and they played beautifully and were especially evocative in the Act III storm overture. However, it were deceptively loud, and at one point or another, almost all of the singers were drowned out by the orchestra. The singers suffered too often from Eduardo Mueller's lead.

Gutierrez was the exception; she could be easily heard throughout, although she didn't seem to have a noticeably larger voice than the other principals. Jenkins spoke about how the director, Linda Brovsky and Jonathan Dean, who did the subtitles, helped to make the plot credible. (Bellini had a fight with his regular librettist, and his choice of Count Carlo Pepoli as a replacement was less than ideal.) That may have been 50%, but the rest of the credit goes to Gutierrez. One approach to Elvira and her multiple mad scenes is to emphasize the madness and play outward, but Gutierrez took a different approach. In her Act I mad scene, when she is abandoned at the altar by Arturo, who has escaped with Queen Herietta (Enrichetta) to save her from execution, with Riccardo's self-interested help, she sounded like someone who has been deeply wounded, although not aware of how much so, going deep into herself. Through her voice, which had no girlishness whatsoever in it, she metaphorically made the audience see the blood run out of her body as she succumbed to physical shock. In her Act II mad scene, she went from delusional to deeper in grief as she became lucid. When in Act III Arturo returns and says he's been gone for three months, she replies that, no, it's been three centuries of torment, three centuries of horror, and her characterization of a woman who's heart had been torn out and was in deep mourning -- all through her voice -- made this no exaggeration. I'm very much looking forward to seeing her in the future.

The costumes were by Peter J. Hall from the 1976 Metropolitan Opera production, deliberately mixing 17th and 19th century styles. The set was a time-neutral series of stairs and platforms which set off the costumes very well. There is a fun interview with Mr. Hall in the program, which I can't find a link to online. A small outtake:

[speaking of people that Hall has worked with] Elizabeth Taylor, Placido Domingo, Luciano, Pavarotti, David Bowie. David Bowie was wonderful to work with. An intelligent, serious artist. I also did something for Mick Jagger who was quite different. Bowie kept the same sense of direction.

What was it for? It was called Serious Moonlight. One of his tours. He'd been in Singapore, and he'd been rather fascinated by it, so we did it as a Singapore of the pre-war days. We had a Malaysian rubber planter, a Malaysian pirate, and English colonel. Each person in the band was one character. They weren't used to wearing cosumes, but they were very good--except one. Stevie Ray Vaughan. A Texan. He only wanted to wear his cowboy hat and jeans. I think we decided to make him a pirate. But he would not come to fittings. He lived in a strange little world of his own. I remember saying to David Bowie one day, "I cannot get him to fittings." And David Boiwe said, "Try getting him on a plane."

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Just a note about the set.

In the post-performance Q&A, Speight Jenkins said that once they decided not to use the Met's sets with the costumes, the director, Lina Brovsky had long discussions with designer Robert Dahlstrom, who said that what she was describing sounded like Piranesi, who used stairs to indicate madness.

So far in reviews, I've heard the set referred to as "Escher-like," and Melinda Bargeen of The Seattle Times, when describing the stage picture on the set, mentioned Breughel.

It's such a great set -- Jenkins said he could think of other operas he's doing in the future in which he could utilize the set, which, he mentioned, despite being so high up was unusually stable and didn't shake, even at the upper reaches with all those people on it -- that just about any interpretation can be put on it. but I find it remarkable that such a modern set could invoke references to so many different centuries of art.

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But then at the very end of the scene she floated a very non-flashy high note while twirling in circles with a dress, which gave me a smidgeon of hope, until tenor Bradley Williams made his entrance, and then I knew what I would miss if I left.
I remember Williams as a really fine Don Ottavio a few years ago with Palm Beach Opera. (A memorable Don Ottavio -- now THAT's not something you hear every day.)
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I moved my schedule around to be able to see Mark Morris tonight and saw the Gold Cast performance of "I Puritani" earlier in the week. This performance was very different than the first.

Norah Amsellem gave a Callas-like performance in several ways: emotionally charged, responsive to text, and liberal with pitch. It was also eliberately formed, with attention to each phrase, but, for me, this only brought out the silliness in the role of Elvira, and, in the end, I didn't care. Last week Gutierrez brought out the (near) universal experience of helplessness and despair of rejection and made me empathize with her. Amsellem's Elvira was simply high-maintenance.

But then there were the men. Lawrence Brownlee has a tenor voice with lovely timbre, but that isn't what makes him a great singer: it the underlying support and technique that gives him the ability to shape phases of supreme beauty and pathos, and, of course, the artistry and musicality to make those choices. Although I had heard Arturo's part in the penultimate ensemble "Credeasi, misera de me tradita" with many, many times, I had never heard it until Brownlee sang it, and only then realized that it among the most beautiful melodies in opera. Although everyone else was thrilled with the high F he sang in the later refrain -- and it was a beauty -- I would have preferred it to end the modest way it began. (From Jenkins' description in the post-performance Q&A, everyone seems to detect a different "tell" from Brownlee to see if he will attempt the note in any given performance.)

Brownlee also moves like an athlete. Most singers when given a hiding scene rush to this place and then that, but the motivation is either blatantly obivous -- "alas, I hear a window smashing" -- or because the director said to, but Brownlee showed physical awareness of what was going around him and had eyes in back of his head to warn him of the dangers, finally making Arturo credible as someone who crossed enemy lines in both directions unscathed. One big payoff was in the Act I sword fight with Riccardo, played and sung by Mariusz Kwiecien, who moved like a panther. They went at without restraint and with mutual contempt -- "I've wanted to impale your ratty little heart since I first set eyes on you and now's my chance" -- and it was the best swordfight I've ever seen on stage. Jenkins also gave up the secret: for safety reasons, there's always a run-through just before the curtain is raised.. The other advantage to the audience (besides having healthy singers) is that this serves to refresh the blocking, so that the more talented ones have it fresh on their minds and can do it unselfconsciously.

Brownlee spun gold and bronze from his first note. Kwiecien and John Relyea, who sang Giorgio, Elvira's uncle who convinces Elvira's father to renege on his promise of Elvira's hand in marriage to Riccardo so that she can marry the enemy Arturo, both needed time to warm up. Once they did, though, it was all engines at full throttle. In Kwiecien's case, especially in his top range, he was all flexibility, power, and cream. He also does bad very, very well, without standard, stock snarly gestures, and with great physical agility. Just before his final duet with Relyea/Giorgio ("Suoni la tromba"), when Giorgio says in response to his question that if they meet Arturo on the battlefield fighting for the Royalists, then it is their duty to kill him, he slowly clenches his downstage fist, having manipulated the conversation and found the loophole out of his his promise to help Elvira by reuniting her with Arturo. The only non-convincing staging for the men was at the end, when Arturo returned and was pardoned through an Act of Parliament, Riccardo returns his sword to him, and all ends happily. You half expected the sword to burst into flames to kill Arturo, like the poisoned dress sent to kill Elizabeth I.

Relyea has a resonant bass-baritone voice and a refined style, following in the footsteps of his father, the great Canadian baritone, Gary Relyea. He is also heads taller than anyone else on the stage, which made Kwiecien's ability to stand up to his voice and stage presence through virility and charisma that much more impressive. It was easy to see how this old warrior with a soft spot for his niece could succeed on the battlefield due to sheer physical dominance.

Joseph Rawley, another young bass-baritone and another out of the Seattle Opera Young Artist's program, made the most of the small role of Elvira's father Lord Gualtiero Walton. He soared over the orchestra. I'd also like to hear more of mezzo Fenlon Lamb, who sang Enrichetta, the Queen, who impressed without melodrama.

At this performance I also finally understood some of what in Bellini might have appealed to Wagner, and that is how Bellini transitions aria after aria into a long expository ensemble, bypassing three or four stop-for-applause opportunities, and building the drama. This would not have been apparent without the expert singing and dramatic sensitivity of the chorus, led by Beth Kirchhoff, who went from full voice to a prayerful whisper as the scene demanded, and the willingness of all four leads to blend into the ensemble.

So forget Puccini and the rest of verismo. Who'd have thought that the men of bel canto "I Puritani" of all operas would have had me reaching for my smelling salts?

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