Russian diva Albina Shagimuratova as Elvira—hearing voices, poised on a staircase, and slowly turning her head in sync with the orchestra— gives a mad stare at the cad who really got her there (Anthony Clark Evans as Sir Riccardo Forth) as her loving uncle (Adrian Sâmpatrean as Sir Giorgio Walton) looks on.
For regular Lyric-goers this may have been a bit déjà vu, reminding us that it wasn’t so long ago that we had a similar Shagimuratova-plus-staircase-plus-madness moment in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor.
Truth to tell--for this writer at least--this was one of the few scenes in this production of Bellini’s I Puritani where the staging—rather than the singing— was a catapult to the sublime. Another was the close of Act I--when Elvira watches here true love Arturo (Lord Arturo Talbot played by Lawrence Brownlee) gallop off in the distance and takes her first steps into undone and madness by moving front stage and apart from the chorus mob. Later, at the opening of Act III, when the gray scene in the first of four curtain layers comes alive during the overture, we feel the perfect moment largely due to the Lighting Design by Chris Maravich.
As with many operas, you may find the story line of I Puritani almost incidental. They are lovers separated by happenstance- in this case the grand events of England’s Civil War—and here they are happily reunited, unlike the many operas of long drawn out deaths-do-us-part. Some might find resonance of the so-called story line with the political divides of today, as one article in the Lyric program book explores. Perhaps it’s better to seize the musical feast of I Puritani as a chance to leave the headlines outside the door.
Hearing Voices Lyric Opera Style
It’s not the voices Elvira hears that matter most- it’s the ones we the audience hear.
As it turns out, Director Eric Einhorn’s lack of emphasis on the stagecraft magic so many of us expect in Lyric productions matters scarcely a whit, because this is first and foremost about the considerable vocal talent assembled on the stage.
Shagimuratova’s Elvira role summons her voice to nearly every virtuoso flourish a soprano can do. From elation to down-in-the-deepest of dumps—and often without a pause— she goes up and down the scales with agility.
You too may end up wishing Bellini had put Arturo on the stage more as you absorb Brownlee’s ever-crisp voice – both solo and especially in the many duets with Elvira. When Brownlee sings alone, and often a cappela, it’s a marvel that with each and every note his voice seems newly at home as though it is the center of his natural range, no matter where it is. Don’t take the Brownlee-Shagimuratova duets for granted, because you will want to fully treasure their duet “You are my one desire” in the happy ending finale we long know is coming.
For this writer though, the most memorable music in Bellini’s score are the pairings of bass, baritone and bass baritone voices throughout. Our first hors d'oeuvre is a short but exquisite pairing of bass-baritone Alan Higgs playing Elvira’s father Lord Gualtiero Walton singing with his brother Sir Giorgio Walton played by Adrian Sâmpatrean.
Bass Adrian Sâmpatrean seems to leave a vocal footprint on the stage on par with the soprano lead, though his part is smaller. From solo, to duet with Shagimuratova, to pairing with baritone Anthony Clark Owens, to trio with both and more—his voice has that soothing presence that seems to bottle “avuncular”, as is his role in the story line. His presence is as commanding as his voice—bringing star power to his every scene.
Bellini’s score also gives us a baritone showcase in the parts for bad guy Ricardo (Sir Ricardo Forth sung exquisitely by Anthony Clark Owens). Pre-concert lecturer Jesse Rosenberg of Northwestern University so aptly pointed out the great challenge of considering this Ricardo as the bad guy because you just don’t think lovely melodies should come from such a villain.
Bel Canto Treat- Bel Canto Challenge
I Puritani is bel canto, aka beautiful song, no matter what, sometimes challenging you to absorb a libretto at odds with the pretty melodies . For example, in one moment when Brownlee’s tenor voice goes into mournful territory the score counterpoints with a light and bright flute trill. Or, when Ricardo and Elvira’s uncle have a showdown of sorts about Elvira’s poor fate and how to end her misery, someone tuning out the libretto translator would just hear baritone-bass meld beauty. It’s as though Bellini stands before us akimbo and asks, “If I’m going to make music, why on earth wouldn’t I always make it melodious and beautiful?”
One special treat in this performances—at least on opening night—was the Lyric Opera seeming to take a page from the Met Opera HD broadcast playlist by opening up the curtain to show the set change between Act II and III. While not yet as polished as those Met Opera movie intermission interludes, this is a mini Lyric Opera backstage tour where we get impressed by the army of talent behind the scenes that makes the magic happen. Wow!, to put those live flames on stage for night effects means having flame experts armed with fire extinguishers on the ready flanking both sides of the stage! Who knew? And, thanks to the luck of sitting next to Lyric’s Director of Marketing, Lisa Middleton, we also learned that the commander of this music Army, Conductor Enrique Mazzola, had been rushed to emergency gall bladder surgery just days before this opening curtain, and yet there he and his energetic baton were.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read — Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
Thru February 28 – seven performances en toto.
Lyric Opera House
20 North Wacker
About the Author: Amy Munice
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