by Paula Citron.
From time to time, the Metropolitan Opera dusts off its 1976 production of Bellini’s I Puritani when a dramatic coloratura soprano rockets into opera superstardom. Needless to say, there was a sold out house for the sensational Anna Netrebko. The Russian-born singer made her debut in St. Petersburg in 1994 and within only a few years she was appearing at the great houses of the world. She is definitely the reigning diva du jour.
Bellini’s final opera, which premiered in 1835, is quintessential bel canto with high notes in the stratosphere, coloratura runs galore, and a heart-wrenching mad scene. These showy tricks, however, must be couched in beautiful singing which makes this particular repertoire so challenging to perform and so thrilling to experience.
The Met’s production was originally a showcase for the great Joan Sutherland as Elvira. Apparently Netrebko does not like being compared to other singers, but to hear her in this role brings exciting echoes of Sutherland’s gilded high register and the dusky bottom tones of the legendary Maria Callas. Now that’s singing.
Netrebko does not have the most beautiful voice in the world. In fact her high tessitura is just this side of thin. Her brilliance is what she does with her instrument. First of all, Netrebko has technique up the ying yang. Perfect placement of pitch is accompanied by exact coloratura ornamentation. She is also fearless in going for her money notes in singing that is totally without artifice.
When this magnificent talent is coupled with a beautiful singing actress who is never out of character, one can understand her diva status. Netrebko’s interpretation of the text is so acute that she manipulates her voice in stunning fashion. The delivery of her fragile Elvira bemoaning the loss of her love contained everything from hysterical laughter, to pathetic whimpers, to powerful ravings. The nuance and colour that this superb singer brings to her character is simply staggering, not to mention that whatever she does on stage is completely natural. The applause and cheers following Netrebko’s two great arias went on and on and on.
The other major roles in I Puritani , which is set at the time of Oliver Cromwell and the downfall of the Stuart monarchy, includes Elvira’s sympathetic Puritan uncle Sir Giorgio Walton (Canadian bass-baritone John Relyea), her rejected Puritan suitor Sir Riccardo Forth (Italian baritone Franco Vassallo), and her beloved Cavalier, Lord Arturo Talbot (American tenor Gregory Kunde).
If Relyea’s name is familiar, he is the son of acclaimed Canadian bass-baritone Gary Relyea and soprano Anna Tamm-Relyea, who were both at this opening performance and proud as punch, one might add. The tall, handsome younger Relyea has certainly inherited a beautiful singing voice. It was announced before the performance that he was overcoming a bout of bronchitis, but it was Relyea who earned the most enthusiastic bravi after Netrebko.
At 34, Relyea is young in terms of low voices, but his sound is already majestic. Perhaps we heard a slight loss of power, but what he did give us was gorgeous legato, that all essential bel canto ingredient of smoothness of phrasing, perhaps the best of all the singers. Like his talented family, his musicality shone through his every pore, and his seamless delivery was a joy to hear. As an actor, he may be a bit stiff, but he makes up for lack of natural stage presence by conveying emotion through his singing. Every word rang true – rich, textured and commanding.
This supremely gifted young man is a mainstay at the Met, Vienna, Munich and Covent Garden but has never sung in Toronto where he was born. Here’s an idea. The Luminato International Festival this June is staging a glittering gala of world class Canadian opera stars. John Relyea should be there.
Kunde is sharing the role of Arturo with Eric Cutler, but he got the opening night because the latter was indisposed. Apparently Kunde himself is recovering from a bout of illness which could account for his laboured and uneven performance. There is no denying his bel canto acumen, and he did make the money notes above high C that are part of Arturo’s tortuous sing. Kunde’s voice swung unpredictably from sweetness to shrillness, but he is an emotional and passionate performer who was a match for Netrebko’s theatrics. The compelling Kunde wears his voice on his sleeve and that saved his ragged performance.
As for Vassallo, he has an attractive voice, and even though it sits at the back of his throat, there is a seductive quality to it. Unfortunately, his is blanc mange on stage and the production only found life when he was in the wings. In the call to arms duet with Relyea, the famous Suoni la tromba, Relyea was singing for two.
The singers managed to triumph over the conducting of Houston Opera’s Patrick Summers who seemed to think this was an orchestral concert and not an opera. He was certainly in a different ball park than was the cast with his erratic tempi.
As for the static and dull sets of Ming Cho Lee, the bizarre costumes of Peter J. Hall that don’t clearly distinguish Round Head from Cavalier, and the lacklustre stand and deliver direction of Met traffic cop Sharon Thomas, everything about the production is tired, tired, tired. Thank goodness for the charisma of Netrebko, Relyea and Kunde.
Netrebko and Relyea perform in all performance of I Puritani until Feb. 8.