Thrilling vocalism in “Puritani” provokes a zealous Met audience
In the Metropolitan Opera’s current season, it wasn’t hard to pick the revival of I Puritani as a potential highlight. A Bellini favorite with an A-list cast seemed bound for glory, and indeed it was the voices that carried Friday night’s performance.
The subject of I Puritani is an odd one, springing out of the mid-nineteenth-century Italian fascination with the British isles that also gave us La Donna del Lago and Lucia di Lammermoor, among others. This tale of love and duty during the English Civil War suffers from a particularly drab staging at the Met, but Friday’s vocal performances made even Sandro Sequi’s dusty, faded old production shine anew.
The meteoric rise of Mexican tenor Javier Camarena has been a thrill to watch, and it shows no signs of slowing. On Friday he gave a performance for the ages, blazing through the role of Arturo with his bright, clarion tenor. He nailed at least three laser-like D-naturals, and maintained a golden sheen on his voice the entire night, sounding completely free even as he ranged high above the staff.
His Arturo, though, is much more than a feat of vocal gymnastics. Camarena can float a soft sigh on a high note where many tenors can’t even scream, affording him a range of expression that escapes just about anyone else. The loudest ovation of the night was for Camarena’s grand entrance in Act I, “A te o cara,” but his real high point was the Act III duet “Vieni, fra queste braccia,” where the fiery intensity of his voice matched the urgency of the moment. Pace one disgruntled fanatic in the balcony who shouted “NO HIGH F!” during the applause, one can hardly blame Camarena for opting out of the famous high note in “Credeasi misera.” This was a performance to remember for years to come, and one that he will only build on as he cements his place as today’s superstar leggiero tenor. To hear Camarena sing is truly to hear one of the great voices of our time.
The book on Diana Damrau is that she makes up for vocal shortcomings with extraordinary musicianship and keen dramatic sense. This was true to some extent in Friday’s performance: she struggled early on as Elvira, showing a hard-edged sound out of the gate and pinching her high notes, but soon found her way to the penetrating ring that shows the singer at her very best. The German soprano is one of the great singing actresses onstage today, and in the scant thirty seconds or so that Bellini and librettist Carlo Pepoli give her to lose her mind in Act I, she crafted a heartbreaking descent into madness.
Damrau’s ability to channel Bellini’s florid writing into overpowering grief is astonishing, and was crucial in the canonical mad scene, “Qui la voce.” Much more than pretty fioritura and lovely lines, she gave us real pathos, balanced with moments of focused mettle. She showed off her extraordinary gift for vocal characterization, finding a coy playfulness in the cabaletta “Vien diletto” and following it through to the end of her innocent, joyful distraction. This tour-de-force rendition of the aria nearly caused a fistfight on the aisle, as an overeager and premature fan began to scream adulation in Italian from the rafters long before the orchestra finished, prompting angry cries from other listeners.
Formidable casting in the two key supporting roles fill out this revival cast. The rich, smooth voice of the gifted baritone Alexey Markov is a natural fit for anything calling for real lyrical craft, and he seemed almost too sympathetic a voice for the honor-bound villain Riccardo, deputy of the treasonous Cromwell. His spacious, fluid singing and ochre tone made for a vocally satisfying performance of his aria “Ah!, per sempre,” though a little less noble restraint might have revealed more about the character. As Elvira’s doting father Giorgio, Luca Pisaroni was endlessly sympathetic, even if he sounded a little bony at times.
The role of Enrichetta, the imprisoned queen, is essentially a plot device with few moments of vocal glory, but Virginie Verrez made the most of it, showing a fine, dark lustre in her singing. David Crawford lost a few low notes but carried himself nobly as Gaultiero, while the ever solid Eduardo Valdes was the very picture of duty as Sir Bruno.
Maurizio Benini, alas, continues to serve as the Met’s go-to bel canto conductor, for reasons that continue to mystify. His rendition of the overture was lifeless, and his realization of the rest of the opera no better, largely lacking any sort of fire, and occasionally showing gaping holes in the ensemble. As he so often does, in the Friday performance he overindulged the singers, allowing them to skew phrases out of all proportion, and more than once he let members of the orchestra correct his tempo. In Benini’s hands, Bellini’s buoyant score seemed a cumbersome chore–the brass collectively had a night to forget, and even the renowned Met Opera chorus was unusually burly.
With all of the back-and-forth shouting in the house Friday night, it’s tempting to say that this was one of the Met’s worst-behaved audiences in some time. But even if it breaks concert etiquette, the impassioned outbursts were refreshing and a little Yankee Stadium fire helps to create a thrilling energy in the house. I’ll take a wild night like Friday’s over dutiful disinterest any day of the week.
I Puritani runs through February 28 at the Metropolitan Opera. metopera.org