Post-Gazette senior editor Robert Croan recently visited New York and sends along this insightful review of the Met's production of "I puritani," by Vincenzo Bellini. Enjoy!
Pretty Yende thrives on short notice in Met's "Puritani"
By Robert Croan
NEW YORK — Bellini's "I puritani" is an operatic rarity that can only fully make its point when performed by a high-powered cast of four magnetic star singers. For this season's revival, the Metropolitan Opera assembled soprano Diana Damrau, tenor Javier Camarena, baritone Luca Pisaroni and bass Alexey Markov. Except for Ms. Damrau, the lineup is not quite as starry as when this production, by Sandro Sequi, was new in 1976 — Joan Sutherland, Luciano Pavarotti, Sherrill Milnes and James Morris — but it's an impressive assemblage designed to draw aficionados of good singing.
Bel canto opera, essentially the serious works of 19th-century composers Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti, relies on the beauties of the human voice above all other elements. Dramatic credibility, the meanings of individual words, even clarity of diction may be sacrificed on the altar of mellifluous melodies and vocal virtuosity. What action there is takes place between the arias and ensembles in longish stretches of recitative — musical declamation tailored to the rhythms of Italian speech. The melodies are incomparably beautiful, however, and with its generally excellent cast, this season's first-night "Puritani" was highly praised by critics and audiences alike.
On Feb. 14, the night I attended, Ms. Damrau cancelled because of illness. Her replacement in the leading role of Elvira was 32-year-old South African soprano Pretty Yende, who did some quite spectacular singing on short notice. Ms. Yende has a substantial sound, capable of fine-spun legato and agile coloratura. While her overall performance lacked the dazzle and nuance associated with the older, more established Damrau, the younger soprano was an attractive figure on stage, and she rode Bellini's vocal hurdles with facility and grace.
The standard formal design of Bellini's era was the slow cavatina, with a lyrical melody over a broken chord accompaniment, followed by a fast caballetta in dance rhythm showing off vocal fireworks of all sorts. Elvira's second act mad scene, "Qui la voce," is one of the grandest in the genre, matched only, perhaps, by the better-known mad scene in Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor." Ms. Yende did very well vocally, though she didn't always make the coloratura emotionally meaningful. Still, there's no question that this singer is a star in the making.
Ms. Yende was well partnered in duets and ensembles by Mr. Camerena, who tossed off tenor high Cs and D-flats with limitless security and aplomb. Mr. Pisaroni and Mr. Markov were both vocally accomplished and comfortable on stage, though not quite in the Damrau-Camarena class. Nonetheless, the rousing bartione-bass duet, "Suoni la tromba," brought the second act to an exhilarating conclusion. If none of the principals managed to make much of this work's theatrical elements, that may be at least partly attributed to the nature of the genre and of the opera itself. Revival stage director Sarah Ina Meyers relied too much on the original static choral tableaux, and gave the principals little more than stock operatic gestures and unimaginative movements to work with.
Robert Croan is a Post-Gazette senior editor.