Cavaliers and Roundheads in Zurich’s I Puritani

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Bellini: Soloists, Philharmonia Zurich, Fabio Luisi (conductor), Zurich Opera, Zurich. 19.6.16. (JR)


Bellini, I Puritani


Production: Andreas Homoki
Set: Henrik Ahr
Costumes: Barbara Drosihn
Lighting: Franck Evin
Chorus-master: Pablo Assante
Dramaturgy: Claus Spahn


Lord Gualtiero Valton: Wenwei Zhang
Sir Giorgio: Michele Pertusi
Lord Arturo Talbo: Lawrence Brownlee
Sir Riccardo Forth: George Petean
Elvira: Pretty Yende
Sir Bruno Robertson: Dmitry Ivanchey
Enrichetta di Francia: Liliana Nikiteanu

I really should have brushed up on my English history before attending this performance, part of the Zurich Festival.

The plot takes us back to the English Civil War (1642-51) and the feud between the Royalists (Cavaliers supporting the Stuart monarchy) and the anti-royalist Parliamentarians (Roundheads – including the Puritans). There are two simple inter-linked plots: The Governor’s daughter Elvira (Roundhead) wants to marry Arturo (a Cavalier but disguised as a Roundhead) rather than the Puritan Riccardo. However a strange woman, held prisoner by the Roundheads, intervenes who turns out to be no less than the Queen of France. She dons Elvira’s bridal veil and, thus disguised as Elvira, Arturo helps her escape back to France. Elvira, not unnaturally, thinks her lover has abandoned her and she loses her senses. These return when Arturo returns and again proclaims his love for her.

The scene opens to reveal a huge black revolving slatted circular structure taking up most of the stage: Homoki employed a similar structure in his Flying Dutchman. One section in this structure opens up to reveal crowd scenes at various stages throughout the opera. The first such scene shows the Puritans capturing the Stuart King (Charles I) and unceremoniously chopping his head off. A dummy is used (another favourite Homoki trick) and the King’s head is thrown in a sack to his widow. Later in the opera the central section of the stage puzzlingly reveals hanging female corpses (when Elvira has gone mad) and a pile of female corpses, onto which Elvira climbs, which eventually and grotesquely come to life. The most controversial part of the production is its ending, to which Homoki adds a twist. It is supposed to be a happy end, the lovers re-united in happiness, the chorus sings “all sorrows are dispersed, jubilation fills your heart, instead of suffering you can now laugh with love’s joy” except that Homoki has Cromwell’s message of the foundation of a republican Commonwealth and an amnesty and pardon for all prisoners not be respected as the Puritans relish the decapitation of the captured traitor Arturo, tossing his head in a black bag to Elvira. This elicited some booing when the production team emerged.

Costumes were doubtlessly historically accurate (though their haircuts were not), the Puritans all in black, their ladies in dowdy cream gowns. The effect was monochrome and deliberately colourless.

On the vocal front, the diminutive Lawrence Brownlee managed the almost impossible tenor part with considerable aplomb, sturdy singing and acting, managing the leap to his High D with courage if not with beauty. The score actually foresees, in one cadence, a high F but no-one can now sing that I suspect without going into falsetto, which would have been done in Bellini’s time but nowadays frowned upon.

Pretty Yende sparkled and wowed the audience (including Cecilia Bartoli in row 4) with her accurate and crystalline coloratura and showed off some stunning high notes, but not all of them were easy on the ear. Her final aria of Act I was most affecting, although her acting is not her strongest card.

Everyone enjoyed the warm baritone of Romanian George Petean, who also acted the role of Riccardo most convincingly. Dmitry Ivanchy (as Bruno) was a solid tenor though I felt the role did not really suit him.  Michele Pertusi’s bass-baritone sounded rather chesty next to Petean’s more open sound; but Sir Giorgio has much to sing in this opera and his lengthy main aria in Act 2 was very well delivered.

Zhang and Nikiteanu have little to sing and did no damage without in any way standing out.

The chorus was spectacular, particularly the men. The orchestra was on very good form, the violins a little thin at times, conducting as one would expect from Luisi, exemplary.

This was Bellini’s last opera and often considered his finest. He only lived to the age of 34 and one can only conjecture what he might have written, had he lived longer.

John Rhodes