Opéra National de Paris 2019-20 Review: I Puritani

Javier Camarena Reigns As The King of Bel Canto

By Mauricio Villa
(Credit: Sebastien Mathe)

The works of Bellini’s, and Bel-Canto in general, have been underrated for centuries, with many judging the orchestration of the pieces as simply being accompaniments for the voices carrying the main melodies.

But as every genius composer of opera, Bellini kept looking for the best way to transmit the drama of the libretto through the music and “I Puritani” showed a clear case of this search and evolution. And if there is something that defines Bellini’s composition are his never-ending soaring melodies, with imprecise rhythm and unexpected inflections.

The shadow of “I Puritani” is the weak libretto. Bellini had ended his relationship with his usual librettist Felice Romani and entrusted his last piece to Carlo Pepoli. Arturo abandons Elvira prior to their wedding to serve his queen. Elvira then goes crazy and only recovers when she finds him once more. And then she goes crazy again when he is briefly arrested. It is an unbelievable melodrama but full of one of the most exquisite music that Bellini wrote.

A Challenging Task For A Brilliant Master

In Paris, famed director Laurent Pelly was entrusted with the challenging task of staging the questionable libretto and he did a fine job, though far from his best. He moved the chorus around a lot, giving a sense of constant action and dynamism supported by the revolving stage. This revolving platform, in turn, was used not only to show different sides of the sets, but to integrate the action that is happening. But Pelly, ever the comedian, tends toward seeking out laughs with  precise and synchronized head movements from the chorus or small group choreographies that are at odds with the tone of the opera.

The directing of the singers was very conservative in approach, though there was added detail in the mad scene. That said, Pelly gave no original solution to the absurdity of Arturo disguising the queen with Elvira’s veil or letting Elvira fall down at the end of the opera, not knowing if she is dead or fainted by happiness.

The sets designed by Chantal Thomas represent the skeleton of a castle, as we only see beams, columns, and metal staircases which mark Elvira’s room and several halls and aisles of the castle on different levels. It is basically an iron structure. It keeps turning around quite often during first act. It keeps a single module during the first part of second act which seems like a birdcage where Elvira is kept. It eventually transforms into a big chamber inside the castle by bringing in two window frames and lowering a fireplace (with real fire lighted by an actress). He kept part of the structure diagonally set for the third act. A modest and precise use of video projections as the backdrop helped creating atmospheres and reinforcing the drama of the opera.

 

 

The King

Javier Camarena is the reigning “King of Bel Canto,” as he proved once more during his second performance of “I Puritani” at Théâtre de la Bastille. I have seen Camarena in three different productions of “I Puritani,” including the Teatro Real in 2016, the Gran Teatre del Liceu in 2018, and this production in Paris, and have witnessed how he has grown in the part.

There is no secret that his high notes are stratospheric, keeping the natural timbre of his voice. His ability to do unbelievable diminuendi and piannismi remains breathtaking. But his voice has gained weight in the middle register and his timbre has become darker. He is always full of surprises and he is always changing things every time he sings the part.

For example, on this occasion, he did not do the diminuendo on the high C sharp of “A te o cara” but came to a soft piannisimi on the high A at the end of the phrase “se rammento” after a perfectly projected high C sharp. His interpretation of this aria was a lesson of perfect singing, giving sense to every sentence and enjoying every moment (most of the tenors go through the aria afraid of the high C sharp). The changes in his voice made “non parlar di lei che adoro” menacing and dramatic.

Pavarotti used to say that to sing “Puritani” you only needed strong high notes, but I don’t quite agree with this affirmation. This section, for example “Non parlar…,” does not go higher than a high A but is written in the passaggio zone and above the stave going constantly to high G’s and A’s. This is a difficult tessitura to maintain, specially considering that the voice should sound heroic and powerful. Another example is “Sprezzo audace,” which also sustains a high tessitura, going to a high B natural and even interpolating a high C sharp on the phrase “non temo, indegno” sounding menacing and aggressive.

After a extremely demanding first act, the role of Arturo has a complete second act to rest and then returns for Act three, where he does not leave the stage and has to confront a long legato aria, the duet with Elvira, and the great ensemble Finale.

His long aria “ Son salvo…A una fonte” keeps the tessitura around the passaggio zone, but despite several ascensions to high B flat, is a little bit lower than the first Act passages, keeping the voice around high G. Above all, this challenging passage is written with the long famous Bellini legato phrases which Camarena managed to control, being always attentive to all the dynamics in the score and making it sound easy. Camarena has said the Arturo is one of his favorite roles, and you can see how he delights in every phrase and high note. The variations he introduced in the second part of the aria were beautiful and always in style. After this long aria, the role goes back to a higher tessitura, being constantly around high A, attacking another high B natural, and the two infamous high D naturals, which again sounded easy and perfectly projected. It seems like his high notes go around your head and ring in your ears. And those two high D’s often frighten most tenors as they have to sustain them over the orchestra, which is playing piano; therefore, the voice is completely exposed.

But Arturo still has to sing the finale scene “Credeasi misera” which gives a little rest for the tenor as it is an ensemble piece and the tessitura is a bit more comfortable. That said, he still has to sing two high D flats or the stratospheric high F. Camarena posted a video on Instagram rehearsing the high F, and honestly it is the most brilliant perfect high F I have ever heard from a tenor. However, he decided not to go for it during this run of performances as he explained in another video. To be able to sing this note he should keep his voice fresh and in a high position which would no let him sing “crudele, crudele” with the intensity that he does. As a result, he decided not to sacrifice the dramatic potency for a single high note. His interpretation of “Credeasi misera” was immaculate and very moving. Even if the part does not have enough extreme high notes, he ended the final chorus with an ascension to a high D natural along the soprano. The chorus and orchestra sang and played in forte at this moment, but you could still hear Camarena’s never-ending high above all of them.

This was, as with his other performances of the role, a true gem of an interpretation and Camarena earned correspondingly raucous applause at the close of the night. He was the star of the show.

 

 

On A Different Level

The young French soprano Elsa Dreisig took on the leading role of Elvira. Unlike the coloratura soprano that tradition has imposed on the role, Dreisig is lyric soprano and her interpretation reflected that fact with her strongest singing coming in her middle register. She has a crystalline timbre with solid projection and her voice is perfectly balanced from the low register up until high C. Anything above that proved troubling. When she performed several high D’s and a high E flat at the end of her cabaletta “Vien diletto,” those high notes sounded forced and the high E flat was slightly out of tune. Her “Son vergine vezzosa” was severely cut and therefore she no opportunity to include any variations.

What I missed most in this interpretation was the ascension to six high C’s and a high D on the phrase “vivrò d’amor, morrò d’amore” during the aria “Ah vieni al tempio.” She also skipped the high D in the duet “Vieni, vieni fra queste braccia” leaving Camarena alone with his perfect stratospheric high note. It almost felt like she was deferring the vocal spotlight to him in this moment.

Of course, this lack of vocal ornamentation was the result of Dreisig sticking closely to the original score and its intentions. Regardless, she proved herself to be a strong actress, playing her two mad scenes with determination and energy. She made the character believable, something quite hard to achieve.

Igor  Golovatenko gave a solid interpretation of Riccardo. With a modestly projected voice, which sometimes sounds guttural, he managed to conquer the lyrical Bellini melody of his entrance aria “Ah per sempre”, pushing some notes during the coloratura passages of his cabaletta “Bel sogno beato” with un uneven result. He did, however, display security on the high notes, interpolating a long high G at the end of the cabaletta, and a high A flat at the end of the “liberty duo.”

His voice blended perfectly with Nicolas Testè who played Giorgio. Testè was faithful to the Bellinian legato style in his single aria “Cinta di fiori.” Both gave a passionate performance of “suoni la trompa.”

Luc Bertin-Hugault, Jean-FrançoisMarras and Gemma Ní Bhriain were perfect in their respective supporting roles of Sir Giorgio, Bruno and Enrichetta.

The chorus sounded splendid and vigorous and Riccardo Frizza extracted all the passion from the score with fast and dynamic tempi. He gave a very cut version of the score, with no repetitions of the cabalettas or “Son Vergin Vezzosa.” He also drastically cut the duet “Vieni fra queste braccia” and ultimately sacrificing more than 30 minutes of music. This in turn diminished the opportunities that the singers had to embellish and extend musical moments. The Paris Opera orchestra responded to Frizza with energy and determination proving that the bel-canto repertoire is not only about languid, long sad melodies or exhilarating cabalettas.

In all, this was a bel canto feast with one singer reigning supreme above all else.

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