A review by Julia Gasper
What a blessing it is that every autumn, Welsh National Opera visits Oxford and performs some of the great masterpieces of the genre just when we need cheering up. Bellini’s I Puritani is an exciting story of intense feelings, passions and rivalry written in the 1830s, the height of the Romantic movement, and it is extravagant in every way. Its heroine, Elvira, goes mad when abandoned by her fiancé Arturo, and there is nothing like a good mad scene to show off the full gamut and agility of the coloratura soprano voice. Linda Richardson shone in this role, which needs great versatility, ranging as it does from the young, innocent girl to the delirium of first madness, and final pathos. The love duets with her and her tenor lead were thrilling. Bellini’s score is full and lavish, with many lyrical arias and vocal pyrotechnics. Horns and woodwind in the overture provide ominous warning of the eventual tragedy.
This production uses a double time-scheme, so that costumes from the Cromwellian era in England are juxtaposed with other costumes and backdrops that suggest 20th-century Northern Ireland. It is a fair point that this sort of plot, about a society divided by warring beliefs, and a love wrecked by that division, is one that could be located in many times and places. Bellini’s blissful and caressing music contrasts with the severity and sombreness of what we see on stage. Arturo abandons his bride because as a secret Catholic, he must follow his duty to save the Queen, Henrietta Maria, who is in danger. Elvira does not understand this, and is broken-hearted. We need opera to remind us of these high ideals of Love and Honour. The world would be so much poorer without them. “I want you to be at my side forever, You are all I desire,” he sings. She replies “I want to be with you forever in love’s embrace.”
The programme says that nobody really knows why plays and operas with mad heroines were so popular in Paris in the 1830s. Well, I can suggest one reason. In 1827, the Irish actress Harriet Smithson went to Paris and received great acclaim for her performances as Shakespeare heroines, particularly Ophelia, who of course goes mad. Smithson was celebrated and painted many times. Hector Berlioz fell madly in love with her and when she married him in 1833, she retired from the stage. This created a gap in the market and makes it quite understandable that in 1835, two notable operas appeared with heroines who go mad – Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor and Bellini’s I Puritani. Both of them enjoyed a raving success.
What is the fascination of mad heroines? Certainly they have an iconic position in Romantic art and literature. Romantic indulgence of feelings, particularly those of a melancholy and morbid kind, and rejection of reason or control, can if taken to the ultimate extreme lead to madness, which is the loss of reason. And in a culture where women were defined as being less rational than men, more prey to excesses of feeling, to be insane was to be quintessentially feminine.
There are many reasons for seeing this fine production of a memorable opera, not least that it is rarely taken on tour, because it needs a large orchestra and chorus. So if you can grab any last unsold tickets for it anywhere, jump at the chance. We look forward to Wednesday’s treat, Handel’s opera Orlando.
Conductor Carlo Rizzi
Director Annilese Miskimmon
Designer Leslie Travers
Lighting Designer Mark Jonathan
Elvira Linda Richardson (from 27 Oct)
Lord Arturo Talbot Barry Banks
Sir Riccardo Forth David Kempster
Sir Giorgio Wojtek Gierlach
Lord Gualtiero Valton Aidan Smith
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