As it turned out, the second performance of the Met’s revival of I puritani was the one to see – it offered some of this season’s greatest singing – and a surprise. Pretty Yende, the South African soprano who stepped in at the last minute to sing Adèle in Le Comte Ory four years ago and lately has been singing Rosina in Barbiere, was announced the previous day as a replacement for Diana Damrau, who was taken ill. I have been a cautious fan of Ms Yende’s; accurate roulades and cascades, lovely demeanor and lovelier, silvery tone, but her involvement, diction and pitch (in middle voice) have been on-and-off. Would she become a songbird or a diva?

Javier Camarena (Arturo) and Pretty Yende (Elvira) © Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera
Javier Camarena (Arturo) and Pretty Yende (Elvira)
© Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera

Well, Elvira, her first in New York, has placed her squarely into diva-hood. From her opening moments in that beautiful offstage choral number, she shone; her graceful, girlish appearance, her innocence, her tonal accuracy, her precision in matching tone (within limits) and actions to text, her meticulous attention to Bellini’s long lines and difficult flights of fancy were the work of a true artist. Enchanting in her opening duet with her uncle, giddy but full of poise in “Son vergin vezzosa” and dark and tragic in her first act Mad Scene (what other opera has a mad scene in all three acts?), her stature – and high-note security – grew as the evening progressed. “Qui la voce”, arguably the longest continual gorgeous melody in all of opera, was hypnotic and sad; “Vien diletto”, with her own remarkable embellishments in the second verse, drove the Met audience wild. And the reception of the third act duet with Arturo was the most enthusiastic this season.  

Pretty Yende (Elvira) © Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera
Pretty Yende (Elvira)
© Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera

Of course it helps that Javier Camarena was her Arturo. I found Lawrence Brownlee’s Arturo (with Olga Peretyatko’s Elvira) marvelous three years ago; Mr Camarena outdid him. Hardly an actor – although there’s little he could do and the stage direction was nightmarishly bad – here was a singer who obeyed every dynamic marking Bellini asked for, infusing every word with meaning, and singing the role as if it were easy. None of the role was transposed down (I believe this was the first time since Edita Gruberova and Chris Merritt sang it in 1991), and so the high C sharps and Ds were all in place – only the high F in the last act aria was ducked, thank heavens. The thrilled curtain calls are usually reserved for an Elektra or Islode; here the bel cantists won the evening. 

And it’s a good thing that the soprano and tenor were so great, because the rest of the cast was not. Luca Pisaroni was far from commanding as Uncle Giorgio, the voice sounding light. And Alexey Markov sounded indisposed as Riccardo. Imagine how brilliant this might have been with a worthy bass and baritone – there was only a smattering of applause after “Suoni le trombe,” normally a rabble-rouser. The rest were good enough, with Virginie Verrez as Enrichetta, the opera’s MacGuffin, almost making us care about her.  

Javier Camarena (Arturo) © Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera
Javier Camarena (Arturo)
© Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera

The production, now 40 years old (it was mounted for Sutherland and Pavarotti!), is a series of arches, flats with castles in the background, a couple of stairs, and a non-functioning fountain. It looks like nobody has dusted it since it was new. And the “revival stage director” Sarah Ina Meyers added nothing: chorus here, chorus there; if happy, raise hats and swirl skirts; otherwise, do not move.  

Maurizio Benini may not have lit any emotional fires or discovered any lost subtleties in the score, but he heeded the singers well, and the Met Orchestra and Chorus performed splendidly. I'm giving this performance four stars because at least one has to be taken off for the disgrace of a production and the baritone, and the real issue with this opera is, how were the soprano and tenor?