Bellini’s I Puritani (The Puritans) is probably most widely known from the final scene of Werner Herzog’s 1982 film Fitzcarraldo in which a traveling opera company performs the Act One love duet on a boat steaming up the Amazon. A te, o cara, amor talora (To you, my dear, love led me) sings the tenor, while Klaus Kinsky expresses his delight and pride in the spectacle, and Claudia Cardinale and her entourage of charmingly ingenuous call-girls applaud wildly from the shore.
It was Bellini’s last opera. It’s set near Plymouth, England, and is about a girl, Elvira, from a Roundhead family who’s in love with a Cavalier officer. It’s no coincidence that Bellini had earlier written an operatic version of Romeo and Juliet, called I Capuleti e I Montecchi, also featuring love in the face of family hostility. Now, in his final re-telling of an old story, the heroine goes mad when she comes to believe, wrongly, that her man has gone off with someone else; but this time the couple is re-united in an unexpectedly happy ending. The plot also involves the figure of the executed King Charles I’s fugitive widow, Henrietta Maria (Enrichetta), in disguise.
Anna Netrebko is currently the opera world’s favorite and sexiest soprano, and I hope to review her new film of La Boheme with Mexican tenor Rolando Villazon shortly. But she also stars in a DVD of I Puritani from New York’s Metropolitan Opera that’s issued in both HD and Blu-ray as part of the Met’s ongoing series of live opera recordings.
The essence of the problem when assessing this live recording lies in the need to decide what you want most from an opera performance, and from the main singer in particular. Is it the unamplified voice, and that only, or is it also good looks, and acting ability? It’s an old dilemma, of course, but most enthusiasts over the years have opted for the voice, whatever the singer happens to look like, with looks an added plus if you happen to be lucky enough to get them.
Anna Netrebko has looks in spades, an acting ability following not far behind, and a soprano voice that’s exceptionally pure in all registers, high and low. But she lacks just that edge of manic vocal attack and fury that so many of the greatest opera roles require.
OK, you can argue, but that’s perfect for the bel canto [beautiful singing] style that Bellini specialized in. However, with their dramatic plots, and the frenzied states of the lovelorn heroines, these operas are in essence no different from any others. Elvira needs to bring the house down with her mad hysterics and crazed absorption with her wedding dress, just as much as Puccini’s Tosca does when she sobs in anguish at her impossible situation or Strauss’ Elektra screams in her manic earth-scratching desperation. This is opera, after all, an over-the-top entertainment or it’s nothing.
But Netrebko just fails to catch fire. Her supporting male singers don’t help, either. All are to some degree adequate to their roles, but none of them stops the heart. Eric Cutler sometimes appears tested as Elvira’s beloved Arturo, while Franco Vassallo as Riccardo, the man her family wants her to marry, is just about strong enough. John Relyea displays sterling qualities as Giorgio, Elvira’s sympathetic uncle, however.
All in all, though, this I Puritani stops far short of being in the first rank.