Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Bella Bellini at BLO

Soprano Sarah Coburn as Elvira - or do I mean Ophelia?
It's too much to say that Vincenzo Bellini revolutionized opera - but he certainly helped re-align it. Indeed, you could argue the long heyday of bel canto reached its height with him (rather than with Rossini, his great rival as both composer and cocktail inspiration). In his greatest hits, Bellini stripped much of the complexity out of the classical style, and replaced it with long, luxuriant vocal lines, streamlined plots, and a surfeit of memorable melody. And audiences were immediately smitten (and have remained so ever since). 

Alas, Bellini's style is in part so definable because his career was so short; indeed, he was dead at 33, just nine months after the triumph of I Puritani, which can be heard in a new production from Boston Lyric Opera that's often ravishingly sung, but isn't always compelling as drama. Perhaps that gap looms a little larger than it should right now, just after this company's riveting Rigoletto; for while this production is often beautiful to see and hear, it's not really in the same league as their earlier Verdi.

But first the good news: I Puritani pivots on a star performance more than most operas do, and BLO has signed a shining one for the central role of Elvira. We've seen the lovely Sarah Coburn in these parts before (she sparkled in BLO's charming Barber of Seville), but she's more subtly luminous here, and her voice seems to glow with fresh touches of opal. That pearliness is just right for Elvira, the Puritan whose romantic purity leads her to the brink of madness when she is deserted by her lover Arturo - a cavalier who's on the Royalist side of the English Civil War (and who only forsakes his beloved to save the life of his queen, who has been taken on the field in disguise).

Not that those politics mattered much to Bellini - or to the audiences who adore I Puritani; in the end the Roundheads and Royalists are just convenient devices for tearing the opera's lovers apart.  But at BLO, director Manich seemed to have set her sights on a different kind of politics - she constantly emphasized Elvira's feminine isolation among the masculine soldiers of her encampment: the female chorus that surrounded her was blank and abstracted, and both her lover and his rival seemed to have been encouraged to be as impassive as possible.  We slowly got the impression that they were meant as "Men" rather than specific men - and thus Manich repeatedly sent Elvira wandering distractedly among them, or through thickets of lances and spears (see below; after the final curtain I half-expected to find the poor girl in the lobby, groping her way along the concession counter).

Mad about you: Sarah Coburn lost in a  world of men. Photos: Eric Antoniou.

Now Coburn is a superb actress, and she pulled all this off - and I've certainly no problem with highlighting the gender subtexts of I Puritani or the trope of the romantic madwoman generally (and at any rate, Manich's ideas were pretty conventional - who could argue with Elvira's isolation?).  Still, the somnambulism got repetitive, and the implicit lecture did begin to impinge on the drama - even perhaps the quality of the bel canto. You could tell, for example, that Troy Cook is a terrific baritone; and I'd wager he's an effective actor; but while his turn as the jealous Riccardo was forceful, it was so emotionally recessed that he seemed sometimes to be consciously draining the color from his voice. (This was all the more unfortunate given that the director had an inexplicably nasty twist in mind for the character as the curtain fell.) Luckily bass-baritone Paul Whelan (another rising star) was given a bit more rein as Elvira's commanding uncle, and used it to full advantage; with Cook's help he made the opera's famous "Liberty Duet" sternly rousing.

Coburn and Tessier remain pure of heart in I Puritani.
Both men perhaps made a stronger impression than tenor John Tessier, who lacked their raw power. Still, Tessier has the lyric style, and above all the range, required for the part - he cleanly hit the incredible F above high C that Bellini demands of Arturo in the final act, and elsewhere plucked other high vocal fruit with ease. And he can fence credibly, had bedroom chemistry with Coburn, and is certainly easy on the eyes (at right) - you could see why a girl would go mad for him.

The principals all received solid support from the chorus, whose men and women sang with clarity, depth and conviction. Meanwhile down in the pit, conductor David Angus once more drew sensitively nuanced playing from the BLO orchestra. 

The physical production was likewise evocative: designer John Conklin built from a set of tottering panels a stormy sky that seemed at civil war with itself, while lighting designer Paul Hackenmueller conjured one broodingly atmospheric miracle after another, even as Boston-based costume designer Gail Astrid Buckley all but cavalierly (ha-ha) painted a series of arrestingly elegant stage pictures.

I must return, however, to the pointlessly dark twist that this version saw fit to work into Bellini's upbeat ending; frankly, it felt unsupported by either character or concept. And am I starting to sense a trend here? I worry that BLO is beginning to rely on random acts of violence to draw a response from its audience.  And it would really be too bad if that became their trademark - because this rising company has so very, very much more to offer.


  1. I am very glad you take BLO to task for the totally gratuitous murder of Arturo that ends this production, particularly when the ensemble finale of the opera, which was intended by Bellini to be a celebration of Elvira and Arturo's reunion and coming marriage, was dropped in order not to contradict the director-invented murder. When a score is butchered to support a radical plot change, something is very wrong (the big ensemble ending the first act was also cut out of this performance). Bellini wrote I Puritani, NOT La Vendetta di Riccardo.

    I was unhappily reminded of the mangled performances of Carmen BLO gave several seasons ago that went so far as to eliminate Carmen's big Chanson Boheme, one of the opera's most popular numbers, along with about 20% of the score. If BLO doesn't believe in these operas, it shouldn't present them to the public.

  2. I feel your pain, Will. Although it's not confined to BLO, or this director. Across the high cultural board there's a disturbing ease with which classics are cut to fit our current political predilections. Here, of course, as you note, something was LITERALLY cut to hammer home the director's point. It's really too bad!

  3. At the very least BLO should have included a note in the program that read, "Oh btw - the opera doesn't really end this way!"