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June 3, 2013 5:16 pm
Much loved by Queen Victoria, Bellini’s last opera is an English civil war drama with a difference. British audiences may feel disoriented by some of its quaint cultural misunderstandings – the story finds a mountain range in Devon and contrives to have Charles I beheaded before the war is over – but the score contains some of the most beautiful music of the Italian bel canto era.
It is brave of Grange Park Opera in Hampshire to bring I puritani back into the spotlight. The summer opera season at England’s country houses has become a rewarding hunting ground for rare operas, and Bellini’s late masterpiece, with its famously taxing pair of leading roles, is a sought-after prey.
Unfortunately, Stephen Langridge’s muddle-headed production does its best to sink the whole enterprise. It seems that we are being presented with a study in madness: poor Elvira is a twitching, crazed creature from curtain-up and her passing comment that she feels as if she has endured three centuries of despair introduces characters dressed in costumes ranging from the 1640s to the first world war. Then again, there are scenes when the whole opera seems to be nothing more than a performance in a Victorian music-hall. By the end Elvira is not the only one going potty trying to work out what is happening.
Although none of the four main singers aspires to the legendary status of Bellini’s “Puritani quartet”, they do their best to deliver the goods. Claire Rutter’s Elvira is at her most successful in the silvery lightness of her coloratura, while a bit acidic elsewhere. Jesús León may not have a first-rank tenor voice, but he sets out to sing bel canto with the poetry that it always ought to have, reaching most of the role’s very high notes with ease. Damiano Salerno and Christophoros Stamboglis are rousing in their baritone-and-bass duet, so popular in Bellini’s day, and the conductor, Gianluca Marcianò, gets plenty of Italianate verve from the English Chamber Orchestra.
As the glorious music of the final ensemble rose to its climax, the production horrors seemed to matter less. Exiting into the floodlit grounds of Grange Park on a beautiful summer’s night is almost enough to make everything feel right with the world again.
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