Lyric Opera of Chicago 2017-18 Review – I Puritani: Shagimuratova and Brownlee Thrill in Bellini’s Final Work

By Santosh Venkataraman

Fans of bel canto opera were treated nearly a year ago to the first mounting of “Norma” at Lyric Opera of Chicago in 20 years with a dream cast that included Sondra Radvanovsky in the title role. Those fans have waited since the 1991-92 season to see Bellini’s final work, the masterful “I Puritani,” which I saw Saturday night in the third performance of this run.

This production was originally directed by Sandro Sequi in 1976 at the Metropolitan Opera, where I saw it last season in a performance for the ages. This run in Chicago held similar expectations since the bel canto specialist Lawrence Brownlee was bringing his Arturo to the Lyric for the first time alongside the powerful Albina Shagimuratova as Elvira in this take of the English Civil War.

Aging Production Serving the Singers

Although this production is 42-years-old, it is not alongside some of the beloved such older productions from the Met and nor should it be. That’s not to discount its utility, however, and it’s fair to say that the problems Bellini had with librettist Carlo Pepoli in creating this makes it difficult to create a unique vision for this work. Visually, it looks the part for what one would imagine 17th-century England to be during a time of war.

“I Puritani” is a gloriously sounding opera and it is clear that director Eric Einhorn chooses to focus on this aspect of the work while drawing out the emotion of the characters. Every moment in this performance was weighted with gravity and purpose. Coupled with Bellini’s amazing score, the result was a dazzling night of opera.

Bellini at his Best?

There’s always a tinge of sadness surrounding “I Puritani,” despite the happy ending, since this was Bellini’s final work as he died not long after the Paris premiere at the age of 33. I Puritani was a hit from that initial run in France in which none other than Bellini’s rival, Gaetano Donizetti, attended the premiere. According to program notes by Lyric dramaturg Roger Pines, Donizetti wrote to a colleague after attending that “I don’t deserve anything like the success of ‘I Puritani.’”

To borrow from Donizetti’s sentiment, I don’t deserve to write about an opera with melodies so lavish and hypnotizing yet I will proceed nevertheless. Words can’t really do justice to what these artists have put forth.

Shagimuratova Rises to Occassion

The soprano Shagimuratova has quickly become a favorite at Lyric since her 2012-13 debut there as Gilda wowed the audiences. She is also becoming a staple at the company, where she will bring her Violetta for the first time next season.

The Russian displayed all the characteristics of greatness with heavenly sound, coloratura technique and an acute sense of drama. Elvira is the unquestioned star of “I Puritani” as she appears in every act as the object of desire of two men with famous mad scenes throughout. Shagimuratova was captivating throughout, making this portrayal gripping.

Her highlight was the Act 2 “Qui la voce” – the centerpiece of the opera in many ways. She is previously heard outside the castle longing for her Arturo, who has departed. Her entrance down the stairs inside the barren castle was breathtaking both vocally and emotionally in her wish to be reunited with the man she loves. It was also in stark contrast to her joyous “Son vergin vergossa” from the previous act in which her mania was of the happy version. This “Qui la voce” resulted in an extended ovation from the ecstatic Lyric crowd.

Brownlee Braving the Weather

Lawrence Brownlee is a technician in the bel canto repertoire. It’s notable how easy he makes singing in such a high register look in his Arturo. I have not seen the tenor perform nearly as much as I probably should so I was eager for this opportunity.

I’ll digress to say that opera season in Chicago has its share of challenges and the region was blasted with snow this particular weekend. This is only important because it resulted in a bit of a subdued atmosphere in the opera house this night. I mention this because Brownlee’s entrance aria, the famous “A te o cara,” was particularly sublime and expressive yet the response from the crowd was surprisingly unresponsive for singing of this caliber.  The only explanation may be that the combination of the ordeal of getting to the opera house along with the 80-minute length of the first act had the audience tense at the start; it had loosened up by the time Shagimuratova sang her “Qui la voce.”

The other big moment for Brownlee was his “Credeasi Misera” from the final act in which he is known for singing the high F in the score as he expresses regret for leaving Elvira.  That shouldn’t be the story as opposed to how he used his instrument to deliver a sweetness of tone that echoed through one’s experience. There isn’t as much strain on Brownlee’s face as you would expect in an effort full of precision and passion.

The Next Great Baritone?

No rendition of “I Puritani” is complete without standout efforts from the other two principals, Riccardo and Giorgio. Anthony Clark Evans, a former member of Lyric’s Ryan Opera Center for young singers, was valiant in his Riccardo. The character is important in the scope of this story because his sadness over losing Elvira is crucial to setting up the remaining events and Evans delivered a brooding “Ah per sempre io ti perdei” in Act one that set the tone for the work and indicated that he may be ready for more substantive baritone roles.

Bass Adrian Sampetrean was a sympathetic Giorgio who served as a consoling presence to niece Elvira as well as to Riccardo for losing out on her. He and Evans were excellent in their duet of “Suoni la tromba” to close Act 2.

Rounding out the cast were several Ryan Opera Center members. Keep an eye out for the big-voiced contralto Lauren Decker, who made the most of her Queen Enrichetta.

Nuance in Play

There’s not much to complain about with such masterful, glorious singing.  The way Arturo smuggled out Queen Enrichetta through the side of the auditorium past the audience was odd and confusing.  Some amplified sound at the start of Act three was completely annoying and unnecessary and unbecoming of a house like the Lyric. In an attempt to engage the audience, the curtains were left open between Acts two and three to witness part of the set change.

Conductor Enrique Mazzola deserves credit since he underwent gall bladder surgery less than a week before this run opened. Mazzola was deft in working his way through Bellini’s sumptuous music and Michael Black’s chorus showcased yet again why it has been one of the stars of the Lyric season.

This was bel canto opera at the highest level.  As for which “I Puritani” I liked more between last year in New York and this year at Lyric, all I can say is that is was a pleasure to be at both.


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