January 08, 2007

Back In Black

Bellini: I Puritani
Metropolitan Opera/Summers
Regal Cinemas at Solomon Pond Mall
High-definition simulcast, 1/6/07

The last scene of I Puritani makes me think that bel canto opera composers had better plot instincts than we give them credit for. Presented with one of the most dramatically preposterous situations in theatrical history—an avowed traitor, sentenced to death by the government, tries to win over the mob by pointing out that beheading him might upset his over-excitable teenaged fiancée—Bellini had the good sense to pack the scene ("Arturo? Arturo? Lo sciagurto!") with some of the most amazing music he ever wrote. Arturo and Elvira, the threatened lovers, sing achingly soaring pleas; Riccardo, Arturo's rival, and Giorgio, Elvira's uncle, provide a menacing undertone; and the chorus ratchets up the tension with halting, staccato interjections over a steel-gray orchestration. It's so heart-stoppingly beautiful that Bellini almost pulls it off.

In fact, up until its final, even more preposterous deus-ex-plot-twist finale, I Puritani is a perfect example of how operatic music can trump operatic plotting. Unlikely coincidences abound; motivations change on a dime; yet the whole thing not only survives, but thrives on a diet of Bellini's most inspired melodies and most reliable stock gestures.

It can even, as it turns out, survive a certain amount of hack camera work. This was my first experience with the Metropolitan Opera's much-vaunted movie-theater simulcasts, and while the overall experience is exquisite fun (I'm already scoping out my free Saturdays for the rest of the season), the visual choices made for I Puritani by the video director, Gary Halvorsen, either worked against the drama, or largely ignored it—ignorance being comparative bliss in this instance. Gratuitous camera movement and a profusion of cuts, particularly in the first act, were more distracting than illuminating, and one particular camera angle, looking out from the stage past the conductor and into the audience, was spectacularly ill-conceived, killing the dramatic illusion every single time it appeared.

Luckily, the rest of the Met's video extras were at least competent. A profile of prima donna Anna Netrebko boosted the fashion quotient, and a brief bit on operatic mad scenes was enlivened by Renata Scotto, still the elegant diva, offering a witty, 30-second survey of various types of insanity via her marvelously expressive face. Backstage interviews conducted by Renée Fleming were inoffensive, and while the time-filling talk segments during the intervals could have been unwelcome interruptions, they were saved by the presence of Beverly Sills, in finest down-to-earth form (the biggest laugh at Solomon Pond: "I had great fun as Elvira, even though I had no idea what the hell was going on").

The production itself, by Sandro Sequi, was thoroughly old-fashioned, both in style and vintage; those were 30-year-old sets being subject to the unforgiving attentions of the high-definition cameras. Sharon Thomas's stage direction was largely limited to getting the chorus on and off efficiently—her main dramatic punctuation seemed to be a sudden cross in front of another character and across the length of the stage—but really, how much can you do with an opera in which the composer can move an entire number ("Suoni la tromba") from the beginning to the end of an act with no harm to the continuity? (Although the chorus could have moved with a little more alacrity and delicacy at the outset of "Qui la voce.")

Among those characters without mad scenes, John Relyea took the laurels as uncle Giorgio, pouring out his supple, focused bass while dramatically staying within each moment, probably the best strategy for navigating the unlikely twists and turns of character. Franco Vassallo, as Riccardo, opted for the other extreme, adopting a concerned-yet-resolute mien and maintaining it for the entire afternoon; his rich, warm singing was only marred by a couple of unfortunately over-muscled high notes. Eric Cutler was ardent but cautious as Arturo—though his high notes were sure, secure, and only mildly hooked, he seemed a little too nervously eager to get off of them as soon as he had hit them, and didn't settle into a truly relaxed phrasing until the final scene. (He may have still been a bit under the weather after battling bronchitis earlier in the run.) Eduardo Valdes, Valerian Ruminski, and Maria Zifchak were solid as Bruno, Gualtiero (Elvira's father, a curiously small role), and Enrichetta, respectively.

But, of course, I Puritani, like most bel canto productions, is all about the soprano, and the big question is whether Anna Netrebko, singing her first Elvira, is the real thing. I think she is—the voice itself is beautiful, and the variety and musicality of her phrasing and color kept the endless repetitions of "lasciatemi morir" from getting old. If her acting in the first act was a little frantic and awkward—one imagines she wasn't given much more direction than "be impetuous"—during the second act, throughout one of the most epic fits of insanity in all of opera, she was riveting and affecting, sustaining surprisingly real drama even during the one indulgent directorial misstep, when she was forced to sing coloratura on the floor, leaning back into the orchestra pit (depicted onscreen with that awful stage-to-audience angle; if that couldn't sabotage her, nothing was going to). Besides, she looks for all the world like a young Greer Garson, and when the director had the common sense to just point the camera at her and hold it there, you realized the genius of the Met's movie-theater scheme: forget the satellites and digital projectors, this was opera as Hollywood intended, a blast of pre-TV silver-screen glamour, a bit of the old studio magic transforming a ridiculous costume drama into something sublime and memorable. One suspects that Bellini, an old hand at working around an unworkable script, would have approved.

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