There is much to enjoy in the Met’s revival of its almost 40 year old production of Bellini’s I Puritani and almost none of it is visual. The set design, by Ming Cho Lee, with costumes by Peter J. Hall, were never anything to rave over, and now that everything looks a bit dusty and faded, they really don’t matter: painted flats with castle in the distance and church in forefront; a generic second act as well with a staircase that would be ideal for a production of Lucia di Lammermoor (indoor Scotland and Plymouth are interchangeable), and a place for Arturo to be chased in the final act. The chorus is lined up dressed like Colonial Americans waiting for their Thanksgiving turkey to arrive from the supermarket. The direction, except for the occasional semi-duel, running, or dancing with a veil, is pretty much stand-and-deliver.

Olga Peretyatko (Elvira) © Ken Howard
Olga Peretyatko (Elvira)
© Ken Howard

But anyone going to a performance of Puritani for directorial ingenuity is in the wrong place. Even within the pantheon of great bel canto operas, Puritani holds a place as being about, as they say, voice, voice and more voice. And for the most part, the Met has delivered. Problems arise, of course, with comparisons: When the production was new, it starred Sutherland, Pavarotti and Milnes; and then, eight years ago, Anna Netrebko arrived, without great fluency in coloratura or a trill or reliable high D or E flat, but with astounding loveliness and charisma, and stepped into the role of Elvira. Olga Peretyatko, a stunning young woman who was slated to sing the Fiakirmilli in Arabella this season but was instantly promoted to Elvira when she was heard again, fills Elvira’s shoes well, if not spectacularly. Her sound is bright, but with a strong and true mid and low-range and she is absolutely assured in coloratura, with roulades, trills and staccati in place. Her singing in the opening off-stage quartet promised good things, and “Son vergin vezzosa,” was delivered with joy and energy. “Qui la voce,” begun offstage as marked, showed off lovely legato and attention to dynamics; the cabaletta, “Vien diletto”, was a fine fireworks display. But one got the impression that Ms Peretyatko was outside the character; as faulty as Netrebko’s singing was, she sang and acted this scene heartbreakingly. This “new” Russian displayed her technique to great effect but remained cool and somewhat old-fashioned in her acting and phrasing. And so it was throughout – aside from a few strident top notes, the glistening sound enchanted, but more minds than hearts were won over.

Lawrence Brownlee (Arturo) © Ken Howard
Lawrence Brownlee (Arturo)
© Ken Howard

Arguably an even more daunting role is that of Arturo, Elvira’s betrothed. Composed for Giovanni Battista Rubini, the quality of whose voice is still being debated, his range was apparently astoundingly high; Bellini wrote a high F for him in his final aria in this opera, and there are a good dozen other notes above high B flat. Most singers used head voice (rather than chest) in the early 1830s – was it a type of falsetto? Whatever the answer, notes above the staff now sung in falsetto would not be acceptable, but lyric tenor Lawrence Brownlee’s beautiful, high sitting voice fills the bill. An ardent actor who sings off the text, his tone is round and warm, his sense of line is pure and Bellinian, and he soars easily into the stratosphere. The couple’s third act duet, sung for once without downward transposition, has both singers on high Ds and it ends with a sustained high C, two voices in their prime, glistening with brilliance. Mr Brownlee ducked the high F, substituting a ringing D flat: nobody complained.

Olga Peretyatko (Elvira) and Mariusz Kwiecien (Riccardo)
Olga Peretyatko (Elvira) and Mariusz Kwiecien (Riccardo)

It was announced before the curtain that Marius Kwiecien was not feeling well bit would sing the role of Riccardo anyway; his first act cantilena, “Ah, per sempre,” showed no impediments, but by the time of his big duet with Giorgio, in which patriotism wins the day, Kwiecien was clearly at the end of his strength. Giorgio was attractively sung by Michele Petrusi, who impressed particularly in his lovely aria, “Cinta di fiori,” that begins Act II.

Michele Mariotti, who is married to Ms Peretyatko, led the performance with grace and attention to detail, and, of course, great sensitivity to the singers. Bellini’s orchestration is often given short shrift; here one was made aware of the potent brass choir early in the opera and later, in mid-duet for the lovers. Wagner was a fan of Bellini’s – he conducted Norma in Latvia in 1830 – and one suspects that he recalled those horn blasts when he was composing Parsifal. But that – and endless melody - are discussions for another time. The Met’s mini-bel canto festival – Sonnambula, Cenerentola, Puritani – has been an enormous success.