There are serious downsides to the Metropolitan Opera’s revival of Bellini’s “I Puritani,” which opened on Friday. The company’s 1976 Sandro Sequi production is dustier-looking and duller than ever, and the conductor Maurizio Benini, a Met regular in the bel canto repertory, led a surprisingly limp and colorless performance of this lyrically sublime and elegant score.
Yet despite these frustrations, there are two reasons not to miss it: The tenor Javier Camarena and the soprano Diana Damrau.
As the emotionally unstable Elvira, a young Puritan woman in 17th-century England, Ms. Damrau sang with gleaming sound, volatile intensity and fearless execution of florid coloratura runs. And as Arturo, the man Elvira loves to distraction, a member of the Royalists, who opposed the Puritans in the English Civil War, Mr. Camarena again proved to be the leading bel canto tenor of the day. At 40, he may be entering his prime. He certainly appears to know what he is doing with his career.
Last month, after an excellent run at the Met as Count Almaviva in Rossini’s “Il Barbiere di Siviglia,” Mr. Camarena retired that role from his repertory. He said that as his voice had matured, he was finding it harder to dispatch flights of rapid-fire Rossinian passagework. The floating lines and full-bodied lyricism of weightier fare, like Arturo in “I Puritani,” clearly suit him better now.
Mr. Camarena balanced melting warmth and clarion ardor in his beguiling performance. His legato phrasing was a model of grace. And when the melodic line rose above high C, a realm that strains many tenor voices, Mr. Camarena was in his glory. He’s a rather stiff actor, who may lack dashing presence, but he still conveys winning authenticity onstage.
Given the dramatic vacuum that is this production, Ms. Damrau, a natural singing actress fresh from an acclaimed performance in the Met’s new production of Gounod’s “Roméo et Juliette,” took matters into her own hands. The frail Elvira slips in and out of reality even before her Act II mad scene, precipitated by what she believes to be Arturo’s abandonment. On Friday Ms. Damrau suggested the shakiness of Elvira’s psyche through manic body movements and nervous impetuosity, bravely folding her physical performance into her singing during crucial moments. Sometimes an impassioned phrase sounded steely. But I’ll take occasional rawness for the compensating fervor that Ms. Damrau delivers.
The vocally muscular bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni has done some exceptional work at the Met. But as Giorgio, a retired Puritan colonel and Elvira’s beloved uncle, he gave a curiously muted performance. Striving for lyrical refinement, he often sounded just reticent. And as Riccardo, a Puritan colonel who had been promised Elvira’s hand, the virile baritone Alexey Markov sang with dark-hued richness, yet came across as bland. The militaristic duet between Giorgio and Riccardo that is supposed to conclude Act II with a chilling pledge to deal with Arturo fell oddly flat. These two singers could have used some juicing from Mr. Benini, phoning it in from the pit.
The beauties of “I Puritani” are subtle; the opera is no crowd-pleaser. You can understand why mounting a new production may not be a priority. Still, if the Met is going to stick with a drab 40-year-old show, then some attention should at least be given to generating a little more drama onstage. In what seemed to be default blocking, chorus members would file into place, face the audience to sing and then meander off.
Much was forgiven in Act III, though, when Arturo returns and gives the honorable reason for his absence. Mr. Camarena and Ms. Damrau were marvelous in the emotionally charged duet when, realizing that he still loves her, Elvira snaps back to sanity. And Mr. Camarena sang thrillingly in “Credeasi misera,” the rousing choral ensemble that Arturo initiates, his stirring phrases capped by princely high notes. With such stars on the scene, the Met might do well to consider a new staging of “I Puritani.”
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