The Metropolitan Opera returned its vintage production of Bellini's I Puritani to the stage last night and the fast-rising Russian soprano Olga Peretyatko wowed the first-night audience in an auspicious Met debut as Elvira, the daughter of a Puritan leader driven mad by her love for a Royalist supporter during the English Civil War.
Elvira is one of the great bel canto roles and it has attracted some of opera's greatest singers, from Callas to Sutherland. The last time the Met brought its production out of mothballs, it was another standout Russian soprano, Anna Netrebko, who took the part.
Peretyatko is an appealing and attractive Elvira, rather stately and refined. Her love for Arturo, while full of fervor, is more restrained in the Sutherland mold than the wild abandon of a Callas. At the outset last night, Peretyatko seemed somewhat tentative. Her voice is pleasant but it is not a big voice and the top notes seemed a bit of a stretch for her in her opening scene.
With the "Veil Song," however, Peretyatko displayed some vocal fireworks, sparklers that lit up the stage and brought the character to life as she almost raced through an upbeat rendition with delightful vibratos. Her Mad Scene (the soprano always seems to have a mad scene in bel canto operas) that begins "Qui la voce" was impressive. Compensating for a voice that is not overly strong, she begins certain passages almost in a whisper, then crescendos to silver-toned highs that are crystal pure.
I Puritani was Bellini's last opera. It premiered in Paris in 1835, the year he died at the age of 34. Although it is set during the turbulent English Civil War, it is a straightforward romance that ends happily, unusual for most operas but especially for the bel canto repertory.
The story revolves around the love between Elvira, daughter of the commander of the Plymouth garrison of Puritans (or Roundheads as Cromwell's followers were called), and Arturo, a Royalist supporter of the dethroned Stuarts. Further complicating matters is Riccardo, an avid Puritan who also loves Elvira and double-crosses Arturo in the hopes of getting her on the rebound.
Elvira, however, persuades her uncle Giorgio to intercede with her father and the nuptials are about to be performed when Arturo learns that the widow of the beheaded King Charles I is in Plymouth and is about to be executed herself. He drops everything and tries to flee with the queen to safety, leaving poor Elvira at the altar.
Arturo is captured by Riccardo, of course, and sentenced to death himself. He's only saved when word arrives that the Roundheads have won the war and an amnesty has been declared for all Royalists. So Elvira and Arturo can be married, after all.
The present Met production is now 38 years old but is still a serviceable one. The curtain comes up on the chorus, dressed more like American pilgrims rehearsing for a Thanksgiving pageant than a band of Parliamentary rebels in Devon, singing about an expected attack by Royalist forces while Puritan troops, looking like Spanish conquistadors, march around the stage.
The chorus is an integral part of I Puritani, singing the opening of both the first two acts (the second in a tableau that could be taken from an old Dutch Master painting), and the opera's final scene, and as always singing magnificently.
The score is at once luscious and rousing, full of melodious arias and duets as well as thumping good anthems, as in the "Suoni la tromba," and those choruses. And Peretyatko has for the most part a strong cast around her and a friendly baton in the hands of her husband, the Italian conductor Michele Mariotti, in the pit.
The American tenor Lawrence Brownlee delivers a strong performance as Arturo. He has a vibrant and assured voice and is full of ardor in his duets with Peretyatko. And the Italian bass Michele Pertusi is splendid as Giorgio, singing with tenderness and warmth, especially his aria "Cinta di fiori," one of the highlights of the evening.
Another Met debut, this one rather less fortuitous, came when the Belarussian baritone Maksim Aniskin stepped into the role of Riccardo for an ailing Mariusz Kwiecien. While some last-minute stand-ins have made careers, this one did not.
But the night belonged to Peretyatko, and with Mariotti leading the always brilliant Met orchestra in a pensive yet lively reading of the score, it was a family success.