I am done. And I mean it this time. My man and I are moving to New York in less than a month, so this run of Bellini's I Puritani was my last chance to endure Seattle Opera. (Have you ever just said it to yourself over and over? Seattle Opera, SaddleOpera, Salad- Opera, Sad ole Opera...)
But this time, I went to see both the opening night and Sunday matinee casts, vowing to figure out why I couldn't ever get my rocks off at an SO performance. Why was I always finding something to be annoyed about? Had I just been too difficult, unfairly judging singers and imagining problems where they didn't exist? I'll save you the suspense: hell to the no. I Puritani has real problems—but it also renewed my love for opera.
The source material for I Puritani is a French historical drama set in a fortress during the English Civil War: boots, hats, swashbuckling lords, swooning ladies, etc. But the audience didn't come for the improbable story. ("The war is over; Arturo is pardoned from his execution; Elvira's sanity may return," all in the last minute and a half.) No, we came for the voices.
Vincenzo Bellini composed Puritani during the bel canto ("beautiful singing") era. He idealized romantic melancholy and specifically sought to bring his Puritani audience to tears, that it might, in his words, "die by singing." Bellini did not intend the libretto to provide a story in the modern sense, with a dramatic arc for pulling the audience along with the characters. Rather, the libretto was a framework for selected poetic moments in the text. Bellini's melodies—long, lyrical, elegiac—were written to draw out those moments into a kind of painting in motion.
General director Speight Jenkins has said he's waited 20 years to put on Puritani, held back by the difficulties of casting it. The opera requires four leads with extremely agile voices that can live in the stratosphere, singing high Cs and C-sharps—and, for the tenor, one impossible F. I sat down on Saturday night, ready to enjoy the vocal feast. Then I felt it, that first kernel of annoyance, my Inner Bitch fixating on the One Thing that could ruin my evening. This time, it was a foot and a half of set sticking out from beneath the curtain. Each time the curtain came down, that embarrassing little corner poked out like an adolescent boner in public—unprovoked, meaningless, hilarious.
But the orchestra, under Eduardo Müller's experienced baton, drew my attention with its lyric brass and bassoons. Then the curtain rose on Robert Dahlstrom's set, an imposing map of the characters' minds. The skeletons of catwalks, towers, and spiral staircases were dizzying and claustrophobic, a representation of conflicting influences—authority, passion, duty, family, war. Director Linda Brovsky kept the action broad and direct, rather than capitulating to fidgety, so-called naturalism. Watching, I wondered why so many previous Seattle Opera productions seemed to veer into cloying emotionalism. This Puritani was simply right. Opera as it is: not a musical, not a movie, not Cirque du Soleil.
The first night belonged to the men. During the intermissions, everyone tried to think up more superlative phrases to describe Lawrence Brownlee's supple tenor. Mariusz Kwiecien's baritone gained strength and clarity when paired with John Relyea's phenomenal bass. Relyea understands not only bel canto, but the voice itself. He does not blast sound into the hall, but knows that the closer the singing voice is to the speaking voice, the more powerful its effect.
That less-is-more philosophy was sorely lacking in the yuckmouth soprano of Norah Amsellem. In trying to hit all the keywords in mainstream vocal technique—controlled breath, rich tone, dramatic coloring—her voice became wiry, wobbly, and swallowed. Jenkins waited 20 years for this? Here it was again—my Inner Bitch: "Why is it so impossible for him to cast a good female lead? A near-perfect cast in this operatic treasure, but WHERE IS MY PERFECT SOPRANO?"
I'll tell you where: the Sunday matinee. In life, Eglise Gutierrez is a diminutive figure, but onstage she has a commanding presence, not least because of her gorgeous soft singing and fearless high notes. Where Amsellem allowed the energy of her scenes to dissipate, Gutierrez centered it on the pathos of her Elvira, gone delirious without her beloved Arturo. Watching her mad scene, my heart began to race. And then an unexpected tear. That's what Bellini was talking about.
Seattle is not an opera queen's mecca, but I will remember this Puritani. For me, live opera had always been about candy wrappers during the pianissimi, the coughing fits from the gallery. Hell was other operagoers. But, last Sunday afternoon, as Gutierrez caressed each phrase with tenderness and purity, I fell in love with Bellini in a way I never had before. That simple, winding melody silenced my Inner Bitch. Every shortcoming fell away, and I was paralyzed.
I suspect that moment wouldn't have happened if I'd always had what I wanted—perfect singers acting perfectly in always-perfect productions. I crave another fix like that, even if I have to wait 20 years.