Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Review: Seattle Opera's I Puritani a pure delight

Seattle Opera pulled out all the stops in its production of Bellini’s I Puritani, delivering a thrilling performance on Saturday, May 10. The success of this production hinged on a quartet of singers who could sing Bellini’s demanding music and work exceptionally well together. Seattle Opera’s foursome, tenor Lawrence Brownlee, soprano Norah Amsellem, baritone Mariusz Kwiecien, and bass John Relyea delivered the goods with Brownlee showing why he is in the pole position to become a world-renown bel canto tenor.

Bellini wrote I Puritani as a romance based loosely on the a bit of history from England’s civil war when the Protestants and Catholics were at each other’s throats. The opera was a hit when it premiered in Paris in 1835 but fell out of the repertoire from approximately the time of Verdi’s death (1901) until the 1950s when singers like Maria Callas resurrected the bel canto tradition. This season’s production of I Puritani marks the first time that Seattle Opera has done it.

Brownlee, as the cavalier Arturo, not only possesses the extended upper register that is required by this opera, but he has plenty of it and it’s a gorgeous sound with lots of resonance. He hit the D above high C with gusto and the F above that in full voice with mega gusto. I don’t know that I’ll ever get the chance to hear that live again. It was astounding. No wonder that Brownlee already has recording contracts coming out of his ears. We’ll be hearing a lot more of him.

As the young Puritan noblewoman Elvira, Norah Amsellem acting was phenomenal. She completely won over the audience when she went mad after her fiancée, Arturo, presumably ran off with another woman. However, her vibrato became very wide in the upper stratosphere – so much so that it sounded as if she was singing two separate notes instead of one.

Kwiecien embodied Riccardo, the jealous lover of Elvira, with a powerful baritone and demonstrative acting. He seemed to force his voice it a little too much at times, but that worked with Riccardo’s pent-up emotions.

Reylea was a perfect fit for Giorgio, the retired colonel and uncle of Elvira. His majestic voice had a world of depth and his gestures and expressions matched the character impeccably.

In lesser roles, Simeon Esper as Sir Bruno Robertson, Joseph Rawley as Lord Gualtiero Walton, and Fenion Lamb as Enrichetta were excellent. The Seattle Opera Chorus was superb vocally, giving us a lively, rich, and present sound that was balanced and filled the house. Kudos to chorusmaster Beth Kirchhoff for preparing them so well.

The orchestra was conducted with great sensitivity by Edoardo Műller. Together, they paced the opera very well and never overwhelmed the singers with too much sound.

Stage director Linda Brovsky had everyone moving in such a way that it looked natural and almost spontaneous. Especially impressive was the interaction between Amsellem, Kwiecien, and Reylea during mad scene in the second act. For example, Elvira would sing of losing her lover and then turn around and run directly into Riccardo.

The scenery, designed by Robert A. Dalstrom and built by the Seattle Opera Scenic Studios, featured multilevel platforms that easily suggested a fortress. The design allowed the principals and chorus to enter and exit from several directions – all of which helped to keep the story moving forward. All of the singers met the challenges of climbing stairs and singing very well.

The traditional costumes were designed by Peter J. Hall and looked terrific. The program noted that the costumes belong to the Metropolitan Opera and were premiered there as part of its production of I Puritani in 1976. Lighting designer Thomas C. Hase contributed to the overall success of Seattle’s production marvelously.

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