By Bryson David Hoff
In the year 1650, England was embroiled in what was to prove the last of three civil wars that had plagued the country for nearly a decade. The conflicts centered on questions of religious dogma as well as the power of the Stuart-held monarchy versus the power of Parliament. The conflict was bloody, bitter, and would result in the creation of a dictatorial regime whose legacy is disputed to this day.
What better setting for a lush, romantic opera?
I Puritani, currently on stage at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, originally premiered in 1835 and is considered by many opera scholars to be the paramount of the Bel Canto genre. It tells the story of the romance between Elvira Walton (soprano Albina Shagimuratova), the daughter of a Puritan military commander, and Lord Arturo Talbot (tenor Lawrence Brownlee), a knight fighting for the Royalists. Despite their family’s willingness to put aside their political differences to let them marry, (as historically unlikely as that choice may be), the couple is torn apart when Arturo uses his entrée to the Parliamentarian base, where the marriage is to begin, to free and escape with the imprisoned Queen of England (contralto Lauren Decker).
The plot is barely sensible, which is obviously no fault of the Lyric. How would a couple whose families have been not just feuding but indeed actively at war since they were children have even met? Why are their families so willing to go along with this in view of the aforementioned near-decade of civil war? Even discounting the previous two questions, why would the bride’s father agree to have the wedding inside of a military compound at the same time that a highly valuable prisoner is being held? The paper-thin nature of the plot means that, much like when the opera first premiered, the audience experience hinges on the beauty of the music and the quality of the singers.
The music speaks for itself. Vincenzo Bellini’s score, generally considered his masterpiece, has been making up for Puritani’s plot hole-filled libretto for almost a century, and the Lyric orchestra renders it in its usual lush fashion. The leading couple, too, are perfectly cast and in good voice. Bellini’s scores are, in general, known for their punishing vocal lines, with Puritani known for being especially taxing. It is, then, particularly impressive how beautiful and effortless Shagimuratova and Brownlee’s high notes sound. The Italian meaning of “Bel Canto” is certainly on full display.
The design elements are equally pleasing. Given the Lyric’s recent favoring of highly conceptual designs, there’s something undeniably sumptuous about the moment when the light hits the painted scrim to reveal a patrol of armored Roundheads patrolling a fortress parapet. As pleasant as this is, however, there’s a definite issue of practicality. During the two scene changes in Act I, an extended silence occurs as the stage crew swaps out one set for another, and the score doesn’t provide enough interstitial music to cover the change. The result is a definite lagging energy throughout the act and a number of minutes of awkward silence that puts the audience on edge and wondering something has gone wrong backstage. It’s not a massive issue, but it’s enough to question whether something could have been done to improve the flow of the piece without sacrificing the painterly aesthetic.
Ultimately, the decision of whether or not to visit I Puritani depends on what attracts aficionados to opera in the first place. If it’s for the gripping, larger-than-life stories, this may not those patrons’ cup of tea. But for those coming to enjoy the beautiful music and the spectacle and high production values of the set and costumes, the sound of Lawrence Brownlee hitting the climactic high F in act three is alone worth the ticket price.
Lyric Opera of Chicago presents “I Puritani” at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive, Chicago, until February 28. More information and tickets are available here.