With programming in the major opera houses dominated by Verdi and Wagner, bel canto fans have had a slightly thin time of it this year (Covent Garden’s La donna del lago is an exception). But others are filling some of the gaps, with Rossini’s Maometto II coming up at Garsington and Stephen Langridge’s production of Bellini’s I Puritani, which opened at Grange Park last night. The opera is set during the English Civil War in Plymouth, Scotland (Bellini and his librettist Carlo Pepoli had a loose grasp on the geography of Britain).

Christophoros Stamboglis as Giorgio Valton © Robert Workman, Grange Park Opera
Christophoros Stamboglis as Giorgio Valton
© Robert Workman, Grange Park Opera

The truism that bel canto is all about beautiful singing masks the fact that its three major exponents achieved beauty in quite different ways. Where Rossini’s beauty is based on decoration and Donizetti’s on vibrant energy, Bellini was a master of melody and line: he had an extraordinary ability to write a series of sung notes that carries the listener on waves of emotion. Even Wagner, usually so virulently critical of Italian opera, was bewitched by Bellini’s music. I Puritani, Bellini’s last opera before his tragically avoidable early death, shows off his melodic abilities at their apogee.

In last night’s performance, the singers, conductor and orchestra did a magnificent job of bring Bellini’s music to life. The English Chamber Orchestra sounded marvellous, with the horn section outstanding in the overture. Bellini’s orchestrations are often criticised as lacking sophistication; while it’s true that the accompaniments to arias in I Puritani are simple, the military setting suits Bellini's innate bounciness, and there is less inappropriate descent into rum-ti-tum than in some of his other operas. I heard plenty of orchestral colour to keep me thoroughly engaged and enjoying the quality of sound. Conductor Gianluca Marciano coaxed plenty of youthful energy out of his players without ever overpowering his singers.

For me, the outstanding soloist was Christophoros Stamboglis as Giorgio Valton, the benevolent uncle of our heroine Elvira. His voice was strong, rich, warm, dripping with syrup. There aren’t too many operatic parts for undiluted paternal affection, and Stamboglis spread a warm glow whenever he was singing. His duet in Act II with Damiano Salerno as Elvira’s rejected lover Riccardo was the highlight of the opera: I could listen forever to the mingling of such warm and melodic voices.

Claire Rutter, playing Elvira, was recovering from flu and started the opera well off her best; she wasn’t hitting anything like full power level and some uncharacteristically heavy use of vibrato seemed to me to betray lack of confidence in a usually reliable voice. But she pulled things together well for the second act mad scene, which is another of those extended Bellini sequences in which the world stops as you drink in the melody, and improved further in Act III. Her interplay with Stamboglis and Salerno was glorious, as was her singing with the chorus, who sang impressively throughout.

Elvira’s beloved Arturo was sung by Jesus Leon, who has an attractive, flexible light tenor voice. While he didn’t quite make every note - and to be fair, Bellini wrote the part for Giovanni Battista Rubini, the most famous tenor of the age, and threw in some celebratedly difficult notes – Leon was clear and firm and produced a fine rendering of the showpiece “A te o cara”.

The concept of Stephen Langridge’s staging appeared to build outwards from the mad scene. The roundhead soldiers of the original were turned into an assembly of Victorian gentlemen in top hats and evening dress, pictured as students of medicine at a public demonstration as one of their number prodded at the strapped down mad woman (either Elvira or some unnamed other person) with phrenological calipers or worse. The scenery and costumes looked suitably opulent, there was some good choreography and some interesting costumery, notably Enrichetta’s Red Queen outfit, but the concept as a whole did little to excite me. Acting and stage movement of the principals was generally good; they were all well involved with their character, albeit without my being particularly wowed by anyone.

Regardless of whether you like this particular staging, I Puritani is an opera that’s never going to win any prizes as a hard-hitting dramatic experience. Carlo Pepoli’s libretto simply isn’t strong enough: there are perfectly good moments of poetry, but the action never carries conviction, with events which change direction too quickly for no apparent reason and a horribly clunky deus ex machina happy ending.

But with music of this calibre, it’s difficult to care, played and sung to such vivacity as it was last night. I spent most of the evening simply drinking in the beauty of Bellini’s vocal writing and enjoying the true Italian brio produced by the orchestra. Listening to bel canto can feel like a guilty pleasure, and after a recent diet of Wagner and twentieth century opera, this was a full evening’s indulgence.