Small picture of Donizetti

 

 

 

Bellini's I puritani

Welsh National Opera, Cardiff and other venues, September 11- November 17, 2015

Photographs by Bill Cooper, courtesy of  Welsh National Opera

 

Welsh National Opera raised some sharp differences in opinion with this production. While most admired its musical qualities, the production generated much more uncertainty and confusion with its switches between a 1950 divided Northern Ireland with a Protestant Elvira and Catholic Arturo to a Parliamentary Elvira and a Royalist Arturo in a Carolean civil war setting plus having an actress alter ego for Elvira, who appeared from time to time. Rian Evans (The Guardian, September 13, 2015) gave it 4 stars and summed it up as "Very worth seeing". Rupert Christiansen (The Telegraph, September 12, 2015) spoke of  "some fabulous singing" but clearly felt that the opera was beyond saving as a dramatic work commenting "It’s a noble try, but one that only serves to tangle the twisted strands of the plot further, saddled with a redundant second interval that hobbles the pace."

Alan Jackson, the Society treasurer, saw the performance in Cardiff on September 11, 2015 and has provided the following:

On balance, despite some reservations outlined below, it was well worth the trip to Cardiff to see and hear Bellini’s I puritani, the opening production of Welsh National Opera’s new season. I have a great fondness for the music of this work and I can’t remember seeing it on stage since Franco Zeffirelli’s 1964 Covent Garden production with Joan Sutherland.

Musically it was very fine. Carlo Rizzi’s reading is taut and dramatic and he obtains excellent playing and singing from his orchestra and chorus. Only one tempo seemed to me to be misjudged, that of Giorgio’s aria “Cinta da fiori”, which to my mind would benefit from being nuanced and caressed rather more, something that can’t be done at this speed. Of course the aria is a narration, Giorgio describing the madness that afflicts Elvira, and a slower speed risks losing that narrative quality.

Elvira was sung by Italian soprano Rosa Feola, and she is a find. The voice is ample, warm and agile and she acts well. She has the range for Elvira, even up to the interpolated high Eb at the end of the Mad Scene which for once was a rounded note and not the shriek that makes one wish the singer bothered. Perfection? Not quite, her trill is sketchy and some of the downward chromatic scales didn’t convince me. But I can’t think of many sopranos I would have preferred vocally, Jessica Pratt is the only one who comes to mind as I write. Much the same sort of comments apply to Barry Banks as Arturo. The voice is lustrous throughout its range, he phrases Bellini’s long lines sensitively, projects well and the (written) high C# in “A te o cara” is taken perfectly and effortlessly within its phrase. He doesn’t attempt the high F in the ensemble near the end, and I much prefer his lower option to a falsetto shriek. Again, it’s not quite perfection. The fioritura in the scene where he escapes with Enrichetta is not sufficiently articulated, neither are the little decorations in the aria just mentioned. And beautifully though he sings that aria is, I still long to hear a tenor emulate Alessandro Bonci’s 1905 recording with its rallentandos and diminuendos. I’m sure Messrs Banks and Rizzi know it and reject its freedoms, but I disagree and feel we lose out on a type of vocal magic that is part and parcel of 1830’s bel canto style.

The lower-voiced male roles were sung by David Kempster as Riccardo and Wojtek Gierlach as Giorgio. Once past his entrance aria in which the fioritura was much too indistinct the former was strong and forthright as was the latter in his more sympathetic role. Smaller parts were more than adequately taken.

The direction was by Annilese Miskimmon. She updated the action to 20th centuryNorthern Ireland. A dumb show in the prelude showed Elvira already mad following Arturo’s helping Enrichetta to escape. The opening two scenes were played modern but for Arturo’s entrance in Act I scene iii and most of the rest she reverted to 17th century costumes, with an actress in Elvira’s 20th century dress moving in and out of the action. All the actionwas played in a modern setting of a church hall complete with catering hatch, stackable plastic seating and strip lighting.

I have two prime expectations of a director. The first is that she/he tells the story clearly and the second is that she/he gets the best possible acting performances from the singers. If these are managed successfully, then updating and concepts that preserve the essential relationships between the characters and their credibility have a chance of being valid. I’m afraid that though Miskimmon passed the second test (and I dare say that the cast felt convinced by what they were asked to do) she failed on the first. I was confused, as were the couple in adjoining seats, and I suspect many others in the audience – the applause for the production team at the end was much less than for the singers and conductor. The action wasn’t clear enough for me. Elvira swallows pills at one point. I don’t remember exactly when, and it wasn’t clear whether they were a cause of her delirium or medicine to keep her on an even keel. And I have to admit to an aversion for stage doubles. Elvira’s double was distracting and confusing rather than explaining, causing or commenting on the action. A key point of the story is that Elvira is being forced to marry Riccardo, a man chosen by her father (even if in the second scene, which is played in modern costume, Giorgio tells her that her father has had a change of heart and that she can marry her own choice, Arturo). Arranged marriages may ring true for the 17th century England but they don’t for 20th century Protestant Northern Ireland. The ending is subverted. The pardon of the defeated Stuarts is announced, but Arturo nonetheless has his throat cut and Elvira sings her final joyful cabaletta while caressing his corpse, presumably having relapsed into an even more psychotic madness than before. I wasn’t convinced.

I have serious reservations, then, about the production, but the musical side was strong enough to make the visit to Cardiff worthwhile. This was my first visit to the Wales Millennium Centre, and I have nothing but praise for its acoustic, at least in the front row of the Circle, which was warm, clear and immediate – quite simply a joy.

 

The Team

 

Elvira - Rosa Feola / Linda Richardson (actress - Eleanor Thomas)

Lord Arturo Talbo - Barry Banks

Sir Riccardo Forth - David Kempster

Sir Giorgio - Wojtek Gierlach

Lord Gualtiero Valton - Aidan Smith

Queen Enrichetta - Sian Meinir

Bruno Robertson - Simon Crosby Buttle

 

Conductor - Carlo Rizzi

Director Annilese Miskimmon

Designer Leslie Travers

Lighting Designer Mark Jonathan

 

 

Welsh National Opera Orchestra and Chorus

 

 

     ©Bill Cooper

Arturo and Elvira

 

 

©Bill Cooper

Sir Riccardo Forth and Bruno Robertson

 

 

©Bill Cooper

Lord Gualtiero Valton and Elvira

 

 

©Bill Cooper

Elvira and her alter ego

 

 

©Bill Cooper

Elvira and Arturo

 

 

©Bill Cooper

Elvira, her alter ego and Arturo

 

 

©Bill Cooper

Sir Giorgio, Elvira and Queen Enrichetta

 

 

©Bill Cooper

Elvira

 

 

 

Page last updated: October 14, 2015