The operas of Vincenzo Bellini currently give me more pleasure than anything else in life. If things go badly I slot one into the DVD player and all problems evaporate. Maybe this means I don't have any serious problems, but my gratitude for this sublime music is nonetheless enormous.
Bellini's last opera, I Puritani (The Puritans), marketed in Taiwan by Jingo in a production from Barcelona in 2001, represents pure happiness. It stars Edita Gruberova as Elvira, a victim of politics during the English Civil War. The sets, supposedly representing Plymouth in the UK, are minimal, though the costumes are as gorgeous as Puritanism allows (which isn't very gorgeous). The glory, instead, comes from the singing. Gruberova is one of the greatest exponents of the bel canto style Bellini specialized in, and here you hear her in a performance of demonstration quality.
One of the great benefits of supremacy in any art is that it gives the proponent immense confidence, with the result that he or she sails to even more stratospheric levels of achievement. Here you see Gruberova smiling happily even when her most taxing music is just about to start. It'll be absolutely no problem, her face says, and it isn't. Her role's main requirement is floridity, and she radiates total ease in the high scales and intricate trills. She knows she can do it, and do it, she does.
But the men are in fact even stronger. The best of them is Simon Orfila as Giorgio, Elvira's uncle, but Carlos Alvarez as Riccardo, the man she's supposed to marry, is also wonderful. The tenor Jose Bros as Arturo, the man she really loves but who's unfortunately a Royalist, is ringingly incisive and well up to the demands of the role. All in all, this product is unreservedly recommended.
There are two reasons why the DVD of Puccini's Turandot from the 2002 Salzburg Festival, also from Jingo, is so fine. The first is that David Pountney's innovatory direction is genuinely exciting. The second is that the then-new ending by Luciano Berio is much more appropriate to the inner nature of the opera than what we had before.
As a tale set in ancient China, Turandot usually gets the Chinoiserie treatment - shuffling scholars, temple ghosts and a superstitious, easily subdued populace. Pountney throws all this out and gives us instead a maniacal machine-state complete with rotating cogs, spanner-hands and lurid, modernistic masks. Executions are a routine and inevitable product of this system, Pountney explains in bonus interview footage. It's the state as murderer, and Turandot is the ice princess who presides over it. Even Ping, Pang and Pong become sinister accomplices in a world of sadism and death.
This approach works extremely well, especially in the opening scene. And when it's combined with sharp, abrasive playing from the Vienna Philharmonic (under Valery Gergiev) the effect is overwhelming. The entire score is revealed as having much in common with Stravinsky, and even Schoenberg. Puccini left it unfinished, and the old completion by Alfano was an over-upholstered refurbishment of earlier themes. Berio's ending is far more astringent, and it reflects backwards, bringing out a comparable modernity in Puccini's own music.
The soloists are excellently suited to Pountney's vision. Johan Botha's frock-coated Calaf is stubbornly human amidst the surrounding barbarism, and his voice is well up to the demands of the huge Salzburg Festspielhaus; 'Nessun dorma' doesn't disappoint. Christina Gallardo-Domas plays Liu as a Dickensian waif, and there's an unusually strong Timur from Paata Burchuladze. As for Turandot herself, Gabriele Schnaut presents her as the dark-voiced siren of the whole industrial complex, helping Liu to kill herself but then, as she strips to Liu's virginal slip for the Berio pages, becoming a tearful convert to humanity, and even love.