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Friday, April 18, 2014

Opera Review: Lightning Strikes Twice

The Met looks to its future with this revival of I Puritani.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Veil song: Olga Peretyatko sings the Mad Scene from I Puritani as Michele Pertusi looks on.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2014 The Metropolitan Opera.
Eight years ago, the Metropolitan Opera assured its own future for the next decade with a revival of I Puritani that made Russian soprano Anna Netrebko an overnight sensation. On Thursday night, the Met used the same vehicle to launch the career of another Russian soprano. Like her famous compatriot, Olga Peretyatko is a smoldering, dark-eyed beauty. At the season premiere of this faded but still serviceable production of Bellini's final opera, the younger singer proved that lightning can, given the correct conditions, strike twice.

Conditions for opera singers (and opera companies) have become much more difficult since 2006. The combination of severe economic recessions, an epidemic of unemployment and an aging core audience has proved deadly for the art form, with the toll taken at the Met in the form of empty seats. However, all those problems went away for three and a half hours on Thursday night, as Ms. Peretyatko sang her first Elvira in New York Paired with the light-but-still-handsome tenor of Lawrence Brownlee, this was an impressive debut for the soprano. And given the dearth of stars in the current operatic firmament, the arrival of Ms. Peretyatko may well prove to be one of the most crucial nights of this inconsistent Met season.

The bel canto operas of the early 19th century depicted madness with a lot of heightened emotion and vocal display, usually written way above the stave. In I Puritani, Bellini wrote death-defying vocal lines over sparse, and at times absent orchestral accompaniment. The role of Elvira combines both of those difficulties, with an extended series of mad scenes that start in the finale of the first act and remain in a state of lovely insanity until the end of the third. In between, the soprano must traverse spidery bridges of sound that will collapse with even the faintest hint of a false note.

The first of these, ("Oh, vieni al tempio, fedele Arturo") comes as Elvira is abandoned by Arturo at the altar on her wedding day. Ms. Peretyatko used a sweet, dulcet tone for the cavatina, navigating carefully with the conductor's help and then singing the cabaletta with more gusto and energy. held the audience rapt with each dive and upward flutter of her voice, growing in confidence as the aria progressed and finally letting the upper register of her instrument out to soar into the topmost notes. Expertly accompanied by conductor Michele Mariotti (who also happens to be her husband), the soprano floored herself and the audience in a rain of white rose petals, collapsing in a whirl of white muslin as the chorus gasped in horror.

She was better in the second act. This features "Qui la voce", a longer and even more difficult mad scene, complete with an entrance that recalls Lucia di Lammermoor minus the blood. (Both operas are based on novels by Sir Walter Scott.) Ms. Peretyatko made her presence felt with clarion offstage singing before making her grand entrance down the well-worn castle staircase. In her white wedding dress and hidden by a veil. The aria is one of Bellini's most challenging, murderously exposed and full of ornamentation that indicates Elvira's disturbed state  Although she sounded as if she was holding back in the opening section of this aria, the full voice emerged to thrilling effect. Again, the fast cabaletta was even better, with an impressive and pretty display of sung fireworks.

Although Bellini's writing for the soprano can be daunting, the tenor has a choice: perform the role with cuts that make the high notes manageable or go all out. Mr. Brownlee chose the latter option, singing with clarity and beauty in the first act but reserving the real goods for his big storm aria  ("Vieni, vieni fra queste braccia") at the start of Act III. This included a jaw-dropping progression from high B to high C to a jaw-dropping high F. This last sounded reached-for but was ultimately secure. Best of all was his long final duet with Ms. Peretyatko, as Bellini signaled both the end of madness and the reunion of the lovers with a serpentine series of difficult vocal lines.

The sudden illness of baritone Mariusz Kwiecien provided an opportunity for Belarus native Maksim Aniskin to make his house debut as Riccardo, the would-be suitor of Elvira whose machinations make matters worse for the lovers. Mr. Aniskin was enthusiastic in his villainy, but undermined by a coarse, dark tone that seemed out of place here. Far better: Michele Pertusi whose modulated bass voice and beautiful tone were ideal for the role of Giorgio. Despite the dissimilarity of these two singers, their Act II friendship duet reminded the audience that for a few minutes at least, this opera was about more than just the diva.

With its faded show-curtain and well-worn facsimile sets, this 38-year old production is showing its age. However, the furniture is stable and the sets have a certain old-fashioned charm. The best visual remains the start of Act II, when the huddled chorus resembles a Rembrandt painting. Less effective: the Keystone Kops-style running of the helmeted supernumeraries, and Ms. Peretyatko's own acting both in and (out of) her wits. With such superb singing in place, the Met may want to start paying more attention to the direction of its operatic revivals.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.