A while back, I complained that operas staged in Zurich far too often featured a gimmicky rotating stage. Now, after relief for a time, one’s come back like a song: I puritani hosts a huge smoke-coloured rotating drum surrounded by an all-black background. A permanent fixture throughout, the drum can “open up” sideways to a round interior space, and even lifts up briefly from its moorings in Act III to hover over the action like a well-lit UFO. Otherwise, though, the drum forever turns clockwise to the muffled rumblings of its mechanics, and takes up three quarters of the visible stage.

Set against that structure in Henrik Ahr's set design – whether a metaphor for I puritani’s warring parties or the passage of time, or both – the cast have precious little freedom of movement: they are forever downstage, either in a bobbing, frontal line or a maddening shuffle in and out of the stage’s flanks. The staging my irritated neighbour cited as an “eternal race around the barrel” does the production few favours.

Against a backdrop of the 17th-century Civil War in England, Bellini’s last opera plays on the strife between Protestant Puritans and Royalist Catholics. The love between Elvira − niece of the noble Puritan Lord Walton − and Royalist Arthur Talbot falls between those warring sides. Ultimately, the young suitor is given Elvira’s hand in marriage, but on their wedding day, he chooses to liberate the king’s widow, Queen Henrietta, whose enemies have held her prisoner and threatened to execute her. Hiding her under the guise of Elvira’s bridal veil, Arthur flees with her to save her life. Elvira, convinced that her fiancé has betrayed her and chosen another woman, is driven to sheer madness. 

Bellini scored the roles with his customary dynamic and virtuoso melodies, perhaps placing more demands on the singers here than in his other operas. In Act III, Arthur’s role calls for a high F. Getting there at all, let alone sustaining it, is no small feat and clearly limits the number of tenors who can sing the role convincingly. Yet Lawrence Brownlee, who sang Arthur at the Met in New York, took up the gauntlet for Homoki’s new production. While initially, his voice showed too little timbre and volume variation for my taste, he might well have been pacing himself for the demands that came later, for his became a highly compelling performance. The credibility of his “lamentations” was impacted to some degree by an unfortunate costume, but in all fairness, his physical ease with Elvira made their affection for one another light up the stage.

As Elvira, the young soprano Pretty Yende debuted in both the role and on the Zurich stage, and her charisma and command of the score went well beyond every conceivable accolade. That her startling effervescence as the soon-to-be-bride in Act I gave way so convincingly to the depths of despair, confusion and sense of loss was extraordinary. Not even the most complex musical structures could stump her. At one point, she ran down different scale intervals six times in succession at a tempo that would make a brave man cry. Later, she sang of Arthur: “You abandon me… run from the one who loves you so much,” a seriously wrenching moment in the Act I finale because by then Yende had truly become Elvira. And her bel canto was like none other: even before her first entrance, she had joined in a rousing chorus with the 70-voice strong choir, where her silvery, clear line gave palpable shape to the music above all the rest.

In the further cast, the accomplished Michele Pertusi sang Elvira’s uncle, Sir George, with a warm, bronze-like bass that was infinitely easy to love. As Richard Forth, the ubiquitous, persistent cavalier whom Elvira rejects, baritone George Petean sang with sure-fire conviction and tremendous skill, although his tic of throwing back his heavy fringe made him seem too self-conscious for a commander. Liliana Nikiteanu was the dishonoured Queen who, in the very first scene, had suffered her husband’s gruesome beheading: staging so convincing I had to yelp out loud. Later, the carnage of war and insanity was mirrored again, both in the pyramid of corpses Elvira reigned above, and in the lifeless bodies of women hanging from their necks, twice littering the airspace. And while the libretto points to a happy ending, Homoki explored another scenario: this Arthur loses his head too, not over love, but to the blade.

On a far happier note, conductor Fabio Luisi guided an animated passage through Bellini’s inspired music, and the Philharmonia Zürich − particularly the flute − performed its usual magic from the pit. Banish the drum on stage, but here was music as music should be.