I puritani is a Bellini opera famous for the difficulties of the male lead part. It was written for Rubini, who had an exceptionally high, agile voice, and it’s not so easy to find a tenor with such characteristics. Juan Diego Flórez sang this role only once (I believe): in Bologna, 2008, and I missed it, because I was living in New York at the time. Bummer. In any case, John Osborn in Frankfurt was fantastic. He’s one of the most cherished light tenors of his generation, together with Brownlee, Camarena, and Florez himself, even if JDF lately has been singing different stuff, with great dismay of some of his fans.
The plot is kind of weird (how unusual!). During the English civil war, 1650 or so, the daughter of a puritan, and great Cromwell warrior, Elvira, falls in love with Arturo Talbo (Arthur Talbot?) who is secretly loyal to the king. Her father, Valton, has promised her hand to another puritan warrior, Riccardo. After the intercession of Giorgio, Elvira’s uncle, Valton accepts to let her marry her beloved Arturo, and wedding preparations are under way. Arturo arrives, and finds a woman prisoner in the castle: she is none the less than the Queen of England in disguise, and is about to be taken to court, where she will certainly be found out and executed. Arturo decides, on the spot, to help her, and runs away with her, taking her to safety. The way this looks to Elvira is that he ran away with another woman, and she goes completely crazy, I mean, Lucia-di-Lammermoor crazy. Arturo is sentenced to death in absentia, he manages to hide and secretly come back to the fortress where Elvira lives. He meets her, explains himself, and she regains her wits, but soon he is discovered, and the puritans want to execute him. She loses her mind again and starts ranting, but news arrive that the Cromwell army has defeated the royalists, peace reigns and all prisoners are pardoned. Arturo and Elvira get married and live happily ever after.
I went into a detailed account of the plot because I must tell you about the abysmal production by Vincent Boussard (what a surprise! A ridiculous production in Germany!). The whole story is set in some sort of theatre: a semi-circle of galleries and boxes is facing the audience: a theatre in the theatre! How novel! a grand piano is constantly in the middle of the scene, mostly with Elvira ravishingly displayed on it. All the men are in long tails and top hats, early 19th century, while the women are first in timeless gowns, then in 1600s ruffs and in the third act I honestly don’t remember. An actress in a black gown is constantly on the stage, hugging the singers, posing meaningfully (or so it seems) in a corner, generally standing in everybody’s way. You got the gist. There was exactly ONE good idea in this production. I would even say a great idea. And they managed to ruin it. When, at the end, after their reconciliation, Arturo is discovered and in danger of being executed, Elvira loses her mind again, and in her ranting, she thinks Arturo is abandoning her again. So, she kills him. And he sings Credeasi misera while dying on stage, as a plead for her innocence. It works PERFECTLY. Both the text and the music fit this idea in a wonderful way. The opera should have ended then and there. But the director did not have the guts to do that, he didn’t have the courage to really change the ending. So, what happens? Arturo is dead, the music stops, and all the singers get up and bow to a non-existing audience towards the back of the stage, while a soundtrack of applause is heard. Then the music starts again, and the finale of the opera is sung. What a disappointment. Ah, I spared you the video projections, I don’t even see them anymore.
Conductor Tito Ceccherini did a reasonable job: the orchestra was not very delicate or nuanced, a bit oom-pah oom-pah, and often it was covering the singers. But, overall, it was ok. The chorus was very good, very well prepared, they really did a good job.
John Osborn as Arturo was wonderful!!!! His voice is EXTREMELY high, but it almost never gets stuck in the nose, he manages to find ways to make it resonate in the skull and the mask without getting it too nasal, and the result is a luminous voice, a beam in the dark. The high notes are spectacular: his first high D in A te, o cara was so loud they must have heard it from outside. He also displays elegant phrasing and fast, brilliant coloratura. He even went to the super-high F in Credeasi misera, which I always find a bit tacky, but hey, it’s tradition, if you can go there, knock yourself out. The director was particularly mean to him. He had to sing the whole of A te, o cara from one of the “boxes” of the “theatre”, meaning that he was stuck to the back of the stage, on the “first floor”, dressed like everybody else (it took me a good 45 seconds to find him with my eyes when he attacked), completely immobile. The German audience was very cold to him also, I didn’t quite get why. I yelled and screamed and supported him as much as I could.
Elvira is a typical role for a soprano drammatico d’agilità. Brenda Rae definitely has the agilità part, not so much the drammatico. She doesn’t have a huge voice, and it is centered very high. Her high notes are beautiful, and her coloratura sparkling and exciting, with no sign of effort. The problem is that the voice loses focus and depth as soon as it goes in the mid-high register: it really sounds a bit hollow. Elvira really needs some drama, and Rae doesn’t deliver on that side. But, hey, what she does well, she does REALLY well, including an amazing chromatic scale in the mad scene, so let’s not complain too much. She is also a very good actress, throwing herself in the role completely. Another good idea of the production, not so original, but good nevertheless, is to show Elvira already crazy, from the beginning. Rae was very effective in her portrait of a very fragile, vulnerable girl. One of the most unnerving ideas of the production, on the contrary, was to keep Elvira and Arturo always apart. They never embrace, they never touch, they are constantly one on the floor and one in the gallery of the fake theatre, when one comes down the other goes up; people in the real theatre were laughing at it. The result is no chemistry, zero, nothing that justifies such a great, all-encompassing love.
One of the best discoveries of the evening was Iurii Samoilov, a young Ukrainian baritone who was singing Riccardo, Arturo’s rival and bad guy of the story. Riccardo has maybe the best aria of the whole opera, at the beginning, when he pines after having lost Elvira, and Samoilov did an amazing job in it. His voice sits quite high, it is strong and powerful and very rich in harmonics. Especially in the high register, his vibrato “flutters” with something that I can only describe as “phosphorescence”. It’s a youthful, exciting sound, I loved it. I have heard something of this kind in Venera Gimadieva’s voice, when she was singing Lucia in Munich (JDF was Edgardo), and, many, many years ago, in Edita Gruberova’s voice, when she was singing I puritani at the MET. I never thought a man (a baritone!) could display such quality. These kinds of voices tend to not record very well, so go hear him live! He also had very good coloratura and did some interesting variations in his cabaletta. He also looks like a million dollars on stage, and Elvira must have really been crazy to pick Osborn over him (sorry Ozzy).
Giorgio, Elvira’s benevolent uncle, was Kihwan Sim, another great discovery! He was rock solid: his bass strong and beautiful, his interpretation heartfelt and sweet. During the war-like duet with Riccardo, he was rolling on the floor in anguish, for some reason, and he still delivered with precision.
All the other minor roles were perfectly on point: Thomas Faulkner as Valton and Michael Porter as Bruno. I want to mention Kelsey Lauritano, as Enrichetta, the Queen of England: she had a very warm, velvety mezzo voice. Her projection in the middle register was remarkable: you could hear her even in the middle of the ensembles, with chorus and orchestra at full throttle. She is very young, she comes from the Opernstudio at Frankfurt, and I think we need to keep an eye (or rather an ear) on her.