Metropolitan Opera Review 2016-17 – I Puritani: Diana Damrau, Javier Camarena & Co. Deliver Golden Age Singing

By Francisco Salazar

This review is for the performance on Feb. 11, 2017. 

What happens when the Metropolitan Opera casts four superstars into Bellini’s final opera? The answer is golden age singing.

For years “I Puritani” has been a vehicle at the Metropolitan Opera to promote the diva and sometimes has made casting uneven with little attention paid to who can sing the incredibly difficult and beautiful melodies for the three principal men. The result is a chopped-up version of Bellini’s final opera that loses so much of what the composer wanted for his music.

However, this season the Metropolitan Opera put together a superstar cast that delivers on all levels. Additionally, many of the cuts that were usually observed in past productions, were opened.

A Virtuosic Singer…

After a much heralded “Romeo et Juliette,” Damrau returned to the stage bringing an energetic presence that kept audiences guessing what to expect from this Elvira.

Damrau was said to be suffering from bronchitis but aside from a few rough patches at the beginning and in her “Son Vergine Vezzosa,” this was a singer who was ready to take risks vocally and let out her full power during her opulent high notes.

When audiences first hear Elvira, she is off-stage singing a prayer and here Damrau’s voice snag the phrases with a melting timbre and suave legato. Her first onstage appearance is in the duet with Giorgio, in which she is immediately asked to sing difficult coloratura roulades. In these Damrau was more than up for the task as she relished in each of the runs taking her time with each. Perhaps in other hands this would have been simply a moment to show off her virtuosic powers. But in Damrau, this was a plea to her uncle. The colors in her timbre once again changed during the duet as the voice obtained more clarity and gentleness and in the cabaletta portion “A quel nome,al mil contento,” Damrau’s voice exuded a vigor that expressed the joy of Elvira. This was further emphasized as she repeated the verse with even greater energy and drive. All this was capped with a thrilling High C# that was met with incredible applause.

During “A Te O Caro” Damrau her voice floated as she held the phrase “O Tanto amor” giving it a slight crescendo before bringing it down to a gorgeous piano that meshed in with the complete ensemble. In “Son Vergine Vezzosa” audiences finally got to get a taste of some vocal fireworks from Damrau and the soprano repeated the final verse where she was able to play with the music and the fioritura. At some points there was tentativeness but those were easily hidden with charisma on stage. And like the opening duet, Damrau had no difficulty holding out the final note of the piece.

During her subsequent “Vieni al Tempio” Damrau got to show off her lyrical singing as she began the line with a clear piano. As Bellini’s melody incessantly repeated itself, Damrau’s voice crescendoed with it. Toward the climax of the piece she interpolated the signature high note that beamed over the orchestra before singing a pianissimo cadenza that ended in a very long low note. The beautiful pianissimo conveyed the suffering in Elvira, one of the most fulfilling vocal-dramatic moments of the night.

For most audiences the mad scene is the vocal highlight of the night and Damrau did not disappoint, singing with a vocal clarity and maturity. The intelligence in her singing could be read as safe but if you look beyond, there were moments of purity that were haunting as her voice floated each note with delicacy, that expressed Elvira’s brittle nature. In the middle of the aria “Ah, Tu Sorridi” Damrau’s voice changed to give it a more frenetic feel and there was some vigor that felt like she had just been revived. However, in the lines “Egli Piangi” that delicacy and frailness to the voice returned. This back and forth of tranquil timbre with a more aggressive tone played up the dynamics of a manic-depressive woman.

The cabaletta “Vien, Diletto” was sung with vigor and excitement, as if she were in the climax of her madness. The explosive high notes Damrau employed brought out the power in her highest range and even more excitement from an audience that erupted into applause before the final of the piece was anywhere close to arrive.

By far one of the highlights of the night was the duet “Fini…me lassa!…Vieni, fra queste braccia!” That Damrau and Camarena opted to sing the complete version was a testament to their love for the music. And how refreshing and exciting it was to hear the music in its complete version. Not only because the duet goes through so many emotional moments from Elvira’s melancholic “tre secoli” phrase but it then goes to a jubilent cabaletta that continues to gain energy by the coda. That explosive energy only emphasizes the excitement that Elvira and Arturo are feeling by the end of the duet and the usual cuts usually halt the momentum before it even gets a chance to build.

Camarena and Damrau both distinguished themselves for listening and reacting to each other’s phrases. From Damrau’s incredible emphasis on the text to her wild and at times breathy phrases, the singing heightened the drama and musicality of the performance. In the second part, “Vieni Fra Queste Brace,” both sung with virtuosic power and they relished in holding out their high C#s, sustaining the note for as long as they could.

Damrau also performed the Metropolitan Opera’s customary finale “Ah, Sento mil Bel Angelo.” The soprano gave it her all here, putting her entire coloratura artillery on display.

…And Actress.

As everyone knows, a Damrau performance is more than just vocal genius. The German soprano is one of the finest actresses in the opera world as well and she managed to score big in arguably one of the most challenging roles she will ever have to portray.

Let’s be honest, “I Puritani’s” libretto isn’t always the most exciting dramatically and the role of Elvira can give everyone headaches if they try to understand what is wrong with her. But in Damrau’s hands, the character’s madness is far from silliness. She has a true grasp on the emotional instability and insecurity of the character.

When Damrau first came on stage, her Elvira exuded an youthful energy that was uncontrollable. Her Elvira is delicate and frail and one immediately senses it when her uncle, Giorgio tells her she is going to be married. This Elvira doesn’t even wait to be told who her betrothed is, but instead ran away immediately from her uncle trying to hide from her reality. That neurotic character foreshadowed the madness already in her. This was further exacerbated by a seeming bipolarity as she immediately recovered her sense when Giorgio told her she would marry Arturo. Damrau’s energy changed and she exuded a uncontrolled excited. Her face lit up with smiles and her movements became less erratic. To cap it all off, she twirled with happiness at the end of the duet.

There was also an evident infatuation with her Arturo (Javier Camarena) as she clung to him throughout “A te o cara” and kep looking back toward him as she was escorted off the stage at the end of his aria.

During “Son Vergine Vezzosa” Damrau once again showed the youthful energy as she played with her veil and modeled her beautiful dresses around the stage.

But her Elvira’s manic depressive side returned in the concertato “Ah, Vieni al Tempio.” In denial upon hearing that her Arturo had abandoned her, Damrau ran around the stage looking for him and consoling herself in Giorgio and then in the fellow choristers. At one point she went to Riccardo as if he could save her. And as her character realized the truth, this Elvira turned to madness, playing with her bouquet of flowers, throwing them on the floor and then ripping them to shreds. The process of her insanity was potently believable, setting up what was to come.

And in the mad scene “Qui la voce soave” Damrau’s Elvira reached the pinnacle of madness as she arrived veiled like newly wed. The soprano walked down not letting go of the veil which she then wrapped around herself as she lay on the floor. Once the music reached the middle section, Damrau began dancing around the  stage almost as if she was celebrating her dream wedding. And in the cabaletta “Vien diletto” Damrau started downstage walking up the stairs before looking up as if she were staring at the moon. She then swiftly moved to a chair and jumped up as she sang the cabaletta. And then in the second part of the cabaletta, Damrau played with her veil, dangling it about in excitement. More than a mad scene, this was a scene of a manic-depressive woman whose suffering took over her and her unrelenting desire to not let go of her love for Arturo.

In Act three Elvira’s madness continued. It was as if her suffering had taken over and when she finally saw Arturo, Damrau’s portrayal was of complete disbelief. No matter how much Arturo convinced, she was in disbelief running about the stage almost as confrontation. This Elvira’s happiness could not be evident until the “Vieni fra queste Braccie” when we saw her cling to Arturo as furtively as she had in the first act.

But as with the entire opera, Elvira’s sanity is always delicate and when the trumpets were heard, she fell into another bout of instability, seeing Arturo as if he were a ghost. Only until “Ah, Sento mil bel angelo” does this Elvira finally recover her sanity and she can finally be happy.

The King of the C#s

Tenor Javier Camarena needs no introduction as he has become one of the most appealing singers in the Bel Canto repertoire. Yet for whatever arbitrary reason, select audience members had a problem with his lack of a High F. After his emotionally chilling “Credeasi Misera,” an audience member shouted “No High F” into the hall to the chagrin of many other adoring fans. While it is true that Bellini’s score calls for this note, the tenor has stated various times in interviews that he deliberately does not sing the note. For him it does not add anything to the music. And the audience member who opted for attempting a dramatic coup was either oblivious to whatever else was happening on Friday night, only cared about high notes (which is an unfortunate problem with many opera audiences) or was simply incapable of seeing the forest from the trees.

Because the bottom line is this – Camarena is a vocal treasure and on this night, he sang the aria with heart. Rather than just singing beautifully, each phrase had an emotional pull. His singing gained intensity as the music continued and each High C# was sung with even more power.

But as much as “Credeasi Misera” was a display of masterful vocal acting, his “A Te O Cara” was sung with similar passion, if a little more restrain. If “Credeasi Misera” was a plea, “A Te O Cara” was a declaration of love to Damrau’s Elvira. The Mexican tenor has always stated that he pays great attention to the score and the composer’s markings and his phrasing was elastic and rich, shifting from powerful fortes to tender diminuendoes that melted into the most glorious of piannissimos.

The serenade in act three finally obtained the correct treatment at the Metropolitan Opera as it was sung with the repeat, allowing Camarena to create a variation in the aria and express Arturo’s emotional arc. The tenor sang with a delicate tone in the first stanza, but there was brightness and a sense of hope. But the second verse took on a more tragic dimension, the ornaments obtaining a melancholic tinge as Camarena stretched several phrases to emphasize Arturo’s sense of loss. By the end, the tenor was singing with a thread of sound, the gentle brightness that he carried through the initial phrases of the aria a distant memory. The ending of the aria, with the tenor kneeling and bowing himself to the ground and his final note slowly fading away, felt like a massive defeat for Arturo.

What is admirable about Camarena is that he does not take any of the moments in the work for granted. For most audiences the role of Arturo is sometimes reduced to two arias and that’s it. But they forget that he has a semi-duet with Enrichetta and a trio with Riccardo. Both these moments require power and very precise coloratura which express the frustrations of Arturo. And in Camarena’s hands the tenor easily interpolated a number of high notes that gave these moments all the more power and made them memorable.

In the duet the phrase “Non Parlar di lei” Camarena emphasized the text giving this Arturo a desperation, while in the trio his “Non temo il tuo furor” he sang it with defiance and vigor, his phrasing more rigid and rhythmic.

A Strong Supporting Cast 

Alexey Markov’s voice felt a bit small for the role and was sometimes overpowered by the orchestra particularly in his opening aria and in the duet with Camarena’s Arturo. However, he sang with elegance in his music, particularly in his aria “Ah! Per Sempre io ti perdei.” Markov sang with a smooth legato line that has made his singing so distinctive. In the cabaletta he also brought out the coloratura line with precision.

Luca Pisaroni showed a very rich lyrical bass in “Cinta di Fiori.” The melody melted into his voice, the phrasing growing in intensity as the aria developed. You could feel a growing sense of mournfulness and loss from him as he reacted to Elvira’s plight.

The highlight of the evening for both Markov and Pisaroni was “Suoni la Tromba.” Both sang with strength and assertiveness that created for an epic duet. The two singers did dodge the final high note Bellini never wrote in his score, but it did not feel lacking after hearing such fierce and pointed singing in the martial cabaletta.

Virgine Verrez’s Enrichetta was luxury casting as she sounded refreshing in this small but crucial part that sometimes gets overlooked.

Sandro Sequi’s production can be very redundant and may say nothing new about the opera but it gives any given diva liberty to move about the stage however she pleases. There are no concepts enforced, giving the proceedings a unique sense of mystery. That said, after 40 years, one would expect that some creativity would be thrown into making the chorus do more than just stand around.

In the pit Maurizio Benini paced the orchestra, sometimes playing with very swift tempi that gave the music a dramatic push often lacking in other interpretations of the Bel Canto repertoire. He took his time in some passages as in “A Te O Cara” and the mad scene,  following the singers. However, there were some rough moments, such as in the opening prelude where the horns tended to play a bit out of tune. And of course the conductor tripped on Damrau’s dress as he came out to take his curtain call, falling onto the stage in a frightful moment. But as was the case with the opera as a whole, this incident had a happy ending, the maestro and diva embracing onstage moments later.

For anyone who has not seen “I Puritani” at the Metropolitan Opera, this is the most complete cast the company has showcased since the 1976 premiere of this production. Not one element is missing and what is important is that the music gets the best treatment it has in decades, allowing each vocal part a good share of great moments. Javier Camarena and Diana Damrau are must-sees. Do yourself a favor and don’t miss them.



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