The first time I ever heard Bellini’s I puritani, it was not in an opera house, nor on any streaming platform. In fact, I was watching Werner Herzog’s 1982 film Fitzcarraldo, whose memorable ending features the tenor cavatina “A te, o cara”. From the triumphal flair of the scene, I assumed the opera would be a widely popular one, but I soon learnt that I puritani is hardly routine in Italian theatres, paradoxically owing its fame to the fact that it is rarely staged. Rome is no exception. Before this new production, the last time it had appeared at the Teatro dell’Opera dates back to 1990, with Mariella Devia and Chris Merritt singing the main roles.

Jessica Pratt (Elvira) and Nicola Ulivieri (Giorgio)
© Fabrizio Sansoni | Teatro dell’Opera di Roma

The reasons for this are both musical and theatrical. I puritani was conceived with operatic superstars in mind and it has often proved difficult to assemble a cast up to the task. And yet, the hassle of finding suitable singers may not seem worthwhile for an opera whose plot isn’t exactly a model of captivation or eventfulness. As conductor Roberto Abbado observes in the programme, the driving and cohesive force of I puritani is Bellini’s characteristic musicality – one that may be at odds with contemporary audiences’ taste for tight-paced drama, but fascinating nonetheless.

While it would be pointless to make the opera into something it is not, a hesitant, unassertive approach to it is arguably the least favourable option. The adjective that best encapsulates Andrea De Rosa’s staging is “limited”. Rejecting the Scylla of a radical rethinking, the Neapolitan director tried to dodge the Charybdis of worn-out tradition by pushing the pedal on one theme – that is, Elvira’s madness. Admittedly, this is barely innovative since the opera is best known for its mad scene in the second act; yet much can still be said and done about the topic, provided that it is executed with some imagination.

Rodrigo Ortiz (Bruno) and Franco Vassallo (Riccardo)
© Fabrizio Sansoni | Teatro dell’Opera di Roma

Set in a sombre, unidentified scene – “rich but stern, puritanical,” De Rosa remarks – Nicolas Bovey's set design derives most of its light from props related to the bride-to-be: her white wedding dress and, more specifically, the long, wide veil. This makes a sharp contrast with the rest of Mariano Tufano’s costumes, which are mostly black or grey. But bridal brightness may turn out venomous: when Elvira falls into madness, the veil becomes a shroud. From then on, light will often be associated with torture rather than with glee, as two broad illuminated platforms shape a cage that closes above the woman.

Yet De Rosa’s coup de théâtre lies elsewhere. Likening love and madness to blindness, the director chooses to have young Elvira blind herself with her own hands at the end of Act 1 after her betrothed Arturo is seen galloping away with another woman. While unexpected, the gimmick doesn’t exactly evolve into anything else, maintaining its shock value for a short while and soon growing tired.

John Osborn (Arturo) and Jessica Pratt (Elvira)
© Fabrizio Sansoni | Teatro dell’Opera di Roma

The gruesome tale unfolding on stage didn’t find its equivalent in the orchestra pit. By his own admission, Roberto Abbado’s interpretation drew on a tradition that treasures balance and composure. Each scene progressed untroubled and unhurried, maintaining clarity and cohesion even during the opera’s most challenging moments. Abbado seemed well at ease with Bellini’s famously long melodies, proving able to follow and punctuate their peculiar arcs. It was, first and foremost, a singing-centred performance. As is – or should be – usual in these operas, singers and orchestra joined together to create a sense of seamless melodic continuity. On the other hand, such unvarying placidity might have hindered a more galvanising, nuanced rendition.

Jessica Pratt (Elvira)
© Fabrizio Sansoni | Teatro dell’Opera di Roma

As anticipated, the cast generally managed to pay good homage to Bellini’s score. Although not vocally imposing, Jessica Pratt’s Elvira overcame the role’s most arduous stumbling block – the dizzying coloratura – thanks to a reliable, agile soprano. Pratt succeeded in adapting to the sudden twists in the character’s development arc, all the while preserving her youthful temper. By her side as Arturo was John Osborn: despite some trouble with the notorious sovracuti, his tenor hovered through the high tessitura with convincing elegance and sensible phrasing. Completing the main quartet were Nicola Ulivieri, who sang a heartfelt and reliable Giorgio, and Franco Vassallo, whose Riccardo didn’t benefit from a few uncertainties and a somewhat generic characterisation. A final mention ought to be made of Irene Savignano, whose short appearance as Enrichetta left a mark all the same, and of the Coro dell’Opera di Roma, who contributed to the good success of the evening.

***11