Spoiler alert: the hero does not get the girl in the Wiener Staatsoper's revival of John Dew’s I puritani as Bellini had intended. As Elvira falls into the arms of Arturo, he is stabbed to death by his rival, Riccardo, leaving her shrouded in a fog of insanity. The twist was the evening’s only instance of Regietheater,  a jarringly effective end to an evening that produces no other surprises. Which is not to imply that all that came before was dull. How can gorgeous singing, an orchestra finely tuned to Bellini’s Italianate expressiveness, and restrained but clever staging of a fine bel canto work translate into anything else but an exciting night at the opera?

Pretty Yende (Elvira) and John Osborn (Arturo)
© Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper GmbH

The role of Elvira calls for an artist who embraces high vocal territory, seemingly effortless ornamentation and the kind of vocal control that can express both raw and quiet despair within the space of a breath. Enter Pretty Yende as the daughter of a commander of the Puritans whose misfortune is to love a nobleman in the opposing Royalist camp in 1650s England. “Vien, diletto”, reflecting her descent into madness as she thinks he has abandoned her, was only one of her arias showcasing her excellence with its sustained high C and B flat and dizzying cascades and descents. In its lightness, her coloratura evoked a pebble skipping over water. All this and her convincing theatrics of a woman driven to distraction left little else to ask for... except perhaps a hero who matched her qualities. That wish came true with John Osborn as her lover Arturo. Yes, he did hit the high F (above high C) in “Credeasi misera” in the final act, but to expect anything else from him after an evening of vocal and dramatic bravura would have been underestimating his mastery of Bellini’s sustained melodic lines and more. His tone was sweet or ringing, powerful though light, his coloratura skills second only to Yende’s.

Roberto Tagliavini (Giorgio) and Pretty Yende (Elvira)
© Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper GmbH

Roberto Tagliavini (Sir Giorgio) seemed to caress each note with his rich lyric bass tone whether consoling his niece, Elvira, or delivering the sad news of her increasingly precarious state to the crowd. Ilya Kazakov was solid as Lord Gualtiero Valton, Elvira’s father. As Sir Riccardo Forth, Arturo’s rival, Adam Plachetka’s voice had a distracting wobble at first along with a tendency to shout more than sing his forte lines, problems which eased by the middle of the second act. Carlos Osuna (Sir Bruno Roberton) had some difficulty being heard. Margaret Plummer was convincing in the minor role of Enrichetta di Francia, King Charles’ widow. Francesco Lanzillotta conducted the Wiener Staatsopernorchester with the requisite sensitivity, and the Chorus was robust and tender by turn.

John Osborn (Arturo)
© Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper GmbH

Restraint ruled both for the costumes and the staging. Manuel Vazquez opts for black for the Puritans and red for Osborn, a.k.a Arturo, the only Royalist role. Stark gray panels enclose the stage and, except for the white spotlight on the principals, the others were more often heard than seen. Heinz Balthes’ variations on that theme are all the more effective for their rarity. The purple floodlighting that pierces the darkness as Elvira starts her descent into madness is one example; the backstage panels that open and swallow her up as a symbol of her departure from sanity is another. Particularly clever: the lamps embedded in the ceiling for most of the performance are lowered, and voilà, their cords suddenly create the trees of the forest where Elvira and Arturo meet for the final time, and what had seemed to be a bare floor is turned into a shimmering carpet of autumn leaves by their light.

When inaugurated in 1890, the main opera house in Bellini’s home city of Catania was described by poet Mario Rapidsari as “dedicated to the immortal name of Vincenzo Bellini … for the instruction and amusement of the people.” This evening, I was instructed, amused...  and delighted.