Bellini's final opera I puritani has always been a bit of an ugly stepchild, mistreated and less-performed compared with the light and charming La sonnambula  and the urgently dramatic Norma. However, musically it is as fine a work as either, its similarly long-breathed melodies and intoxicating enough to overshadow its rather weak and complicated libretto by Count Carlo Pepoli. And here, in a concert performance by Victorian Opera, it confirmed its musical values and was given an unusually cogent sense of drama by its two principal singers. Shorn of a stage presentation, this drama was created predominantly through the voices of the singers and an remarkably robust orchestral backdrop.

Jessica Pratt © Luis Condrò
Jessica Pratt
© Luis Condrò

Jessica Pratt was, in one word, a marvel. This role requires every weapon in the bel canto soprano's armoury and she had it all, scarcely appearing to breathe during her slow arias. Her voice seems to get larger as it ascends, the notes in alt spectacularly full and resonant but also ravishingly glowing in tone (she capped off Act II with a huge unwritten high F). Coloratura, too, was nigh-on impeccably delivered and Pratt is certainly not afraid to add her own ornamentation, with the polonaise “Son vergin vezzosa” a dazzling array of interpolated staccati, scales and ravishing pianissimi. Lest this all make Pratt sound like some kind of automaton skilled in vocal effect, it must be noted that the identification with the character was total and this was portrayed consistently within her voice. Elvira must lose her mind three times in this work; what was astonishing was the variety that Pratt brought to these outbursts. Similarly, her dizzy glee was beguiling during the aforementioned polonaise as she contemplates marriage. With ravishingly hushed support from Nathan Lay and Paul Whelan, the central mad scene (“Qui la voce”) became the emotional highlight of the performance, the glorious melody infused with a tangible sense of longing. This was a performance truly in the line of the great bel canto sopranos of the past; the future for Pratt should be a bright one indeed.

With any tenor interpreting the role of Arturo, much attention will be on the famously stratospheric high F demanded at the work's conclusion and whether or not it was attempted. Celso Albelo certainly did, confidently and in full chest voice, to audible gasps from the audience. High notes abound in this role, all dispatched with aplomb, but this is a tenor voice to savour throughout the range. While Albelo clearly delights in those high notes, he brought a lot of sensitive nuance to other parts of the role, warmly shaping “A te, o cara” and refining his voice down to lovely effect in the third act “Son già lontani”. His and Pratt's voices blended superbly and they clearly have similar instinctual understanding of Bellini's melodic phrasing – their Act III duet was tremendously exciting as they matched each other note for note.

Solid support was provided by baritone and bass Nathan Lay and Paul Whelan, Elvira's rejected suitor and caring uncle. Lay kicked off Bellini's remarkable series of arias with a lovely “Ah! per sempre io ti perdei” but he was a little stretched by some of the higher and louder moments. Nevertheless, his soft-grained baritone made a good effect in her tenderness towards Elvira. Whelan suffered similarly with a lack of focus to the voice in more dynamic sections, which made for a less rousing duet with Lay than one might have hoped for, but “Cinta di fiori” was lovingly done with the repeated ascending and descending intervals carefully placed. The comprimarios were all fine, Tania Ferris making for a particularly gutsy Enrichetta.

Richard Mills deserves much credit for his sensitive conducting, always shaping Bellini's melodies delicately but with a dynamic enough sense of momentum to keep the drama moving. Many of these melodies occur in the orchestra before the singers take them up and Orchestra Victoria proved more than capable of spinning them out effectively, with some particularly touching solo horn moments. Bellini's orchestration gets a lot of stick for its simplicity but Mills and his orchestra showed that it need be no mere accompaniment but a vibrant force in its own right. The chorus too made a successful contribution, suitably spirited as soldiers in the first act.

Given the overall commitment of the performance, it is difficult to bemoan the lack of a stage presentation of I puritani. Pratt and Albelo in particular were so perfectly matched to the technical and emotional demands of the music that one can scarcely imagine a more effective reminder of Bellini's melodic genius. The art of bel canto is alive and well down under.

****1