Annilese Miskimmon’s Northern Irish upbringing must have involved witnessing sectarian murals, Loyalist marches, Orangemen in bowler hats and sashes, and the results of a 300-year period of sectarian violence and struggle, culminating in the Troubles. It is in the latter era that she opens this powerful but mystifying production of Bellini’s I puritani. The opening set shows a wainscoted parish hall, painted in crap’n’cream and smelling (in one’s mind’s nostrils) of stale buns and lukewarm tea. Here the Orangemen bear their banner, emblazoned with the head of Oliver Cromwell and the letters LOL – Loyal Orange Lodge. Dressed in black suits and bowler hats, the WNO men’s chorus looked startlingly convincing in their roles and sang of their hatred of the foe. Confusingly, today’s Loyalists are also royalists, whereas here they stand in for Cromwellian republicans. The clue comes in the section of the original libretto printed in the programme, in which Elvira says she believes her state of madness has lasted three centuries, not three months – thereby allowing Miskimmon update the opera up to the 1950s.

Rosa Feola (Elvira) © Bill Cooper
Rosa Feola (Elvira)
© Bill Cooper

Carlo Rizzi conducted with a mastery of Italian bel canto idiom that was clear from the first bars. His use of rubato as an expressive medium meant that the rhythmical variations and subtle changes in tempo were never meaningless twangings at the musical elastic, but always full of interpretative insight and the source of great beauty. Bellini’s vocal line is long-breathed and expansive, needing great control on the part of the conductor in order that the singers can reach the end of each phrase, and Rizzi provided this throughout, although he could not do much to help Barry Banks’s audible vocal difficulties as Arturo in the first act.

David Kempster was a powerful and mature Riccardo, Elvira’s disappointed lover. His first aria, “Ah! per sempre io ti perdei”, had gravity and colour, though perhaps not enough sweetness of tone. By contrast, Wojtech Gierlach’s Giorgio Valton had a richness of tone that made him more than simply the avuncular figure who supports Elvira’s wish to marry Arturo, and his duet with Elvira, “Sai com’ardi in petto mio”, gave this gifted Polish bass an equal partnership with Rosa Feola’s outstanding coloratura soprano.

Wojtek Gierlach (Giorgio Valton), Rosa Feola (Elvira) and Sian Meinir (Enrichetta) © Bill Cooper
Wojtek Gierlach (Giorgio Valton), Rosa Feola (Elvira) and Sian Meinir (Enrichetta)
© Bill Cooper

I puritani stands or falls by its Elvira, and this production stood high, with this young and hugely gifted singer making great musical and dramatic sense of the role. Elvira goes mad in Act I, stays mad in Act II, and is mad for most of Act III, a challenge for any interpretation, and especially for this production which not only moved the action between three centuries, but also provided Elvira with a mute doppelgänger (acted with a uniform expression of horror-struck disbelief by Elena Thomas from various positions including the parish hall’s service hatch, the proscenium pillar, and the top of a small upright piano), distracting the audience from focussing on the singing version of the heroine.

The sudden change in period at the start of Act I scene 2 saw chorus and cast reappear in the costumes of the English Civil War (black hats and white ruffs for the Puritans, silk breeches for the Royalist Arturo), and the walls began to fold and twist as Elvira’s mind gave way under the stress of her heartbroken jealousy. The cause of this jealousy is the arrival of the widowed queen Enrichetta (Henrietta Maria), whose disguise is soon broken, and who is then taken to safety by her Royalist supporter Arturo, hidden under Elvira’s wedding veil. Like all the best bel canto heroines, Elvira does not pause to ask why her betrothed had seemingly betrayed her. Instead, she goes straight into a mad scene, which Feola interpreted with beauty of tone and length of line worthy of her great predecessors in the role.

Rosa Feola (Elvira), Elena Thomas and Barry Banks (Arturo) © Bill Cooper
Rosa Feola (Elvira), Elena Thomas and Barry Banks (Arturo)
© Bill Cooper

The production stayed in the 17th century throughout Act II (with a glorious performance of Elvira’s “O rendetemi la speme”) during which Arturo is offstage dealing with obtaining Enrichetta’s safety. In the third act, in which Arturo is sentenced to death by Parliament for his role in protecting the Queen, the action in this production suddenly returned to the early years of the Troubles, with Arturo now a fugitive IRA man captured by the Loyalists, and threatened with immediate execution. On his return, Barry Banks’ voice was back at full strength, and he gave a moving and virtuosic performance. It would be unfair on the production to reveal how this played out – enough to say that Bellini’s happily-ending melodrama unjustifiably became a full-blown tragedy in Miskimmon’s hands. Musically the evening was a complete success, dramatically less so, but that was partly the fault of the libretto Bellini chose to set in this, the last of his operas.