Monday, 10 June 2013

I Puritani at Grange Park Opera

Jesus Leon in act 1 of I Puritani at Grange Park Opera
Jesus Leon in act 1 of I Puritani at Grange Park Opera
I Puritani was Bellini's final opera, written in Paris in 1835. Working with an Italian exile in Paris, Count Carlo Pepoli, rather than his usual librettist Felice Romani, Bellini was attracted by the poetry of Pepoli's lyrics. But this was allied to a plot of extreme fragility. Forget the librettist's tenuous hold on English and Scottish geography and history, the basic mechanics of the plot are risible even by Italian bel canto standards. But these are allied to music of great beauty and finely drawn lead roles.

Grange Park Opera's new staging of the work directed by Stephen Langridge, is the first one in the UK for many years. We caught it on Saturday 8 June 2013. A strong cast included Claire Rutter as Elvira, Jesus Leon as Arturo, Damiano Salerno as Riccardo and Christphoros Stamboglis as Giorgio, with Gianluca Marciano conducting the English Chamber Orchestra.

Langridge and his designer, Conor Murphy, clearly felt that the thinness of the plot needed some sort of supplement. Langridge chose to start the work off in a Victorian mad-house with doctors examining a female inmate. Taking his cue from Elvira's mad scene, Langridge seemed to be trying to examine the appalling Victorian attitudes to female mental illness and the way women who did not conform to the norm were locked up. This sort of multi-layered approach can work well and prove highly illuminating (for example, David Pountney's ENO production of Dvorak's Rusalka set in a Victorian nursery). But unfortunately there seemed to be little or no traction between the plot mechanics of I Puritani and Langridge's madhouse setting. The results, as the opera progressed, seemed to be that Langridge and Murphy threw ideas at the piece in apparent desperation, creating a confused mess rather than an illumination of the opera.

The frustrating thing was that Langridge and conductor Gianluca Marciano ellicited performances of great style, brilliance and intensity so that the staging was thrillingly gripping even if you had not the slightest idea what was going on.


The costumes were a mix of periods with the chorus and most principals in early 19th century dress with the odd nod to the 17th century but Leon as Arturo appeared in act 1 in a sort of 17th century outfit but with a bizarre red wig that made him look punk. Then in act 3, the Arturo and Elvira appeared in modern dress.

Murphy's set used a huge abstract back drop which lit up in ways akin to a disco, but also doubled as a video screen, though I felt that this latter was underused.

Claire Rutter, singing Elvira for the first time, has just been singing Tosca and Sieglinde and has Turandot in her diary for next season. Quite a stretch of roles, butt here was never a feeling of her voice being over-stretched by bel canto demands. She impressed when we heard her as Lucrezia Borgia at ENO in Mike Figgis's production and impressed again here with her stylish approach to this most lyrical and most elaborate roe. Were were treated to a string of D's and an E flat in alt, all of which were integrated with the elaborate fioriture into a fine musical performance, one which leveraged the natural vibrancy of Rutter's voice, to created some beautiful and some thrilling moments. Her Elvira was fragile from the moment we first heard hear, and it was not surprise that her mental health gave way.

I Puritani is an opera notorious for the face that the vocal demands of the tenor role, Arturo, are as demanding as that of the soprano. The role sits naturally very high and includes the famous high F (in act 2). Mexican tenor Jesus Leon was clearly equal to the challenge. He has a flexible lyric voice and seemed remarkably relaxed about the role's tessitura. His voice isn't large, but he brought to the role a lovely control and flexibility, with enough resource to colour and shape the music. His duet with Rutter in act 3 was rightly one of the climaxes of the evening.

But I Puritani is a work which needs four fine soloists and Grange Park Opera's casting was impressive in they way they had formed such a superbly balance quartet of soloists.

Damiano Salerno sang Riccardo, he has done a number of roles for Grange Park Opera as well as recently giving a Rosenblatt Recital at the Wigmore Hall. Riccardo is the villain of the piece, and the role calls for flexible pre-Verdi high baritone singing. Salerno proved fully equal to the task, singing with power, flexibility and an apparently inexhaustible supply of top notes. Again this was a highly musical performance. And one of the highlights of the whole opera was Salerna's brilliant and thrilling act 2 duet with Christophoros Stamboglis's Giorgio.

Stamboglis suffered from one of designer Conor Murphy's less brilliant ideas. A big man, Stamboglis was lumbered with a costume which included a pair of profoundly unflattering tartan trews. Still his voice did not suffer.  He created a warm and sympathetic Giorgio even though Langridge staged his solos in a way that made you think he was going to launch into a soft shoe shuffle.

Alberto Sousa sang the small role of Bruno, here expanded into the ubiquitous keeper of the madhouse. Sousa impressed musically, but also in the way he managed to develop his creepy stage persona throughout the opera. Matthew Stiff made a strong Lord Walton and Olivia Ray was highly sympathetic as Queen Henrietta Maria.

Gianluca Marciano conducted with sympathy and style, clearly shaping the broader sweep of the music and providing the singers with sympathetic support whilst not lingering over much. This style of music is a fine balance between over indulgence and over briskness, and Marciano achieved a nice balance. He even managed with aplomb an unscheduled break due to technical problems. The English Chamber Orchestra in the pit were on good form.

Despite the puzzling frustrations of the staging, this proved an engrossing and highly stimulating performance thanks to the superb performances from the four principals.
Elsewhere on this blog:

No comments:

Post a Comment