I PURITANI E I CAVALIERI
Opera in 3 acts
Libretto: Carlo Pepoli, after Jacques-François Ancelot & Joseph Xavier Boniface (Saintine)’s Têtes rondes et Cavaliers (1833)
First performed: Théâtre de la comédie italienne, Paris, 24 June 1835
“Carve into your head in adamantine letters,” Bellini urged his librettist: “The opera must make people weep, shudder, die through singing.” Opera, he believed, was more than a concert in pretty costumes; the audience should feel something. Today, we see I Puritani as a grand entertainment, and a vehicle for fine singing – but it was one of his most popular operas in the 19th century, and Queen Victoria’s favorite.
Bellini himself, though, died soon after its triumph. Like Mozart and Schubert, he died young. I puritani was his last opera – and should have been the start of a new period in his career. He’d left Italy, where he’d achieved his first triumphs; broken with his usual librettist, Felice Romani, after the fiasco of Beatrice di Tenda (1833); and moved to Paris, where Rossini managed the Théâtre italien.
I puritani – with its pathos, lyrical singing, and martial music – was a sensation. It featured four of the greatest singers of the day (“the Puritani Quartet”): the soprano Giulia Grisi as the heroine Elvira, the bass Luigi Lablache as her uncle Giorgio, tenor Giovanni Battista Rubini as her lover Arturo, and baritone Antonio Tamburini as her rejected suitor Riccardo.
“The French had all gone mad,” Bellini wrote to a friend; “there was such noise and such shouts that they themselves were astonished at being so carried away… In a word, my dear Florimo, it was an unheard-of thing, and since Saturday, Paris has spoken of it in amazement.”
Nine months later, he was dead. Amoebic dysentery killed him at the age of 33. “Had he lived a normal span of years,” writes Charles Osborne (The Bel Canto Operas of Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini, 1994), “probably all of his operas up to and including I Puritani would now be thought of as his juvenilia. But they are all we have of Bellini, and at least three of them – La Sonnambula, Norma and I Puritani – seem genuinely mature works of genius.”
The opera takes place towards the end of the English Civil War (1642-51), between the Parliamentary forces under Oliver Cromwell (the Puritans) and the supporters of the Stuart monarchy (the Cavaliers). The Puritans have captured Henrietta Maria of France, Charles I’s widow, and are holding her prisoner at a fortress near Plymouth, under the command of Lord Gualtiero Valton (Walter Walton).
The Introduzione is glorious. The sun rises majestically over the fortress. Brisk martial music leads to a ferocious chorus, as the Puritan soldiers curse the Stuarts. The four principal singers are all heard off-stage praying, rather than seen: an ingenious way of whetting the audience’s appetite, while emphasizing the voice. The chorus celebrates the news of Elvira’s wedding.
One person who isn’t celebrating is Sir Riccardo Forth; Elvira’s father had promised him her hand, but Riccardo has learnt that she will marry Sir Arturo Talbot, a Cavalier, instead.
Nor is Elvira looking forward to the wedding; she believes that she will marry Riccardo. Her uncle, Giorgio, tells her the good news: her bridegroom is Arturo – and, listen! here he comes.
The quartet “A te, o cara” is one of the gems of the bel canto repertoire; it’s a quintessentially Bellinian sweet, slowly unfurling flower of melody.
All seems rosy; the couple love each other, and her father has given his permission. Arturo, however, discovers that the prisoner is the Queen, and that Walton will take her to London that day. Arturo helps her to escape, disguised in Elvira’s wedding veil. The jealous Riccardo confronts them, but lets them pass when the Queen reveals herself.
He tells Elvira that Arturo has fled with another woman. She believes that she has been abandoned at the altar, and goes mad. The finale contains a touching scene, “Ah! vieni al tempio”:
Elvira has sunk into madness; she wanders around the fortress, crowned with roses, her hair undone, searching for herself, or performing the marriage ceremony with an invisible bridegroom. Arturo himself has been condemned to death by the Parliament.
Elvira appears; she veers between grief (andante) and delirious joy (allegro).
Giorgio urges Riccardo to save his rival, and so restore Elvira’s sanity. United, the two men will fight together against the Cavalier forces should they attack the fortress. The duet “Il rival salvar tu dêi” ends in an exciting cabaletta, “Suoni la tromba”. Some critics consider it vulgar, but it’s a terrific tune.
Three months later. Arturo, condemned by Parliament, has made his way in secret to the castle, hoping to persuade Elvira to run away with him. She calls for help, and Arturo is arrested. This sends Elvira further into madness. The ensuing quartet, “Credeasi misera”, was written for Rubini’s freaky tessitura, and calls for a D flat followed by a top F.
In the nick of time, Cromwell’s heralds arrive with the news that the Stuarts have been defeated, and their supporters pardoned. Elvira, now cured from her madness, can marry Arturo.
There was a time, I confess, when I found Bellini trite – “a pump in sighs” (as Heine dubbed him), sentimental and too self-consciously melancholy, without Rossini’s brio or Donizetti’s sense of theatre. There were lovely passages, true, but there’s a thin line between the lovely and the boring.
The one opera I enjoyed in those unregenerate days was I Puritani, a livelier, more extroverted work.
Then I listened to Maria Callas, and discovered the characterization and drama that Wagner and Verdi admired.
Even now that I’ve come to appreciate Bellini more, I still rate Puritani above his other operas. It strikes me as his most consistently inspired score. There’s a wealth of great tunes, starting with the wonderful Introduzione, and continuing with quartets, a rousing duet, and three mad scenes. It’s bel canto at its finest.
I Puritani is, of course, an opera set in Protestant England, written for a European Catholic audience. The tenor is Catholic, a partisan of the Stuarts, but our sympathies are with Elvira, and her uncle, Giorgio – both Puritans. It’s more nuanced than the libretti for Donizetti, which present Henry VIII (in Anna Bolena), who broke away from Rome, and his daughter Elizabeth I (in Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux) as tyrants.
Despite the historical setting, it’s not a historical opera. The English Civil Wars are a backdrop for the love story of Arturo and Elvira. The Queen appears, but only in the first act, and then largely to complicate the plot.
We see little, for instance, of the joyless theocracy of Cromwell, who banned theatres, dancing, sports, walks on Sunday, and Christmas. (Lord protect us from Lord Protectors!) If it were fun, he was against it. (Weirdly, though, the first English operas were performed during the Protectorate.) By the end of his government, he was widely hated, and the English were relieved to see the return of the Stuarts, and the merry monarch Charles II, one of the country’s most brilliant rulers.
Bellini is more interested in the little peoples’ emotions than in the political situation (as in French grand opera) or even the historical figures (as in Donizetti’s operas about English and Spanish royalty).
This is characteristic of bel canto opera, which sees human nature as universal. Love, jealousy, hope, and happiness cut across cultures.
(French opera is concrete and specific, emphasizing local color and the particular; German opera is at once heroic and mystical, concerned with philosophical ideas.)
That may be why Italian opera is so popular; it speaks directly to our feelings.
Anna Netrebko (Elvira), Eric Cutler (Arturo), Franco Vassallo (Riccardo), and John Relyea (Giorgio), conducted by Patrick Summers. Metropolitan Opera, 2007.
I watched the 2007 Met production starring Anna Netrebko as Elvira. (Online here.) Netrebko is lovely – and an extraordinary singer. She performs the Act II mad scene lying on her back, with her head in the orchestra pit. And gets what sounds like a (thoroughly well deserved) standing ovation. It’s one of those pieces that is pleasant on disc, but becomes electrifying in performance. This is what we watch opera for!
The staging itself is blessedly traditional: 17th century costumes; painted backcloths; the look of a Rembrandt painting; and not a director’s concept in sight. And the audience loved it. It succeeds marvellously, because the Met is sensible enough to trust Bellini.
- Maria Callas (Elvira), Giuseppe di Stefano (Arturo), Rolando Panerai (Riccardo), and Nicola Rossi-Lemeni (Giorgio), with the La Scala Orchestra & Chorus conducted by Tullio Serafin, 1953.
- Joan Sutherland (Elvira), Luciano Pavarotti (Arturo), Piero Cappuccilli (Riccardo), and Nicolai Ghiaurov (Giorgio), with the London Symphony Orchestra & chorus of the Royal Opera House conducted by Richard Bonynge, 1973.
- Montserrat Caballé (Elvira), Alfredo Kraus (Arturo), Matteo Manuguerra (Riccardo), and Agostino Ferrin (Giorgio), with the Philharmonia Orchestra and the Ambrosian Opera Chorus conducted by Riccardo Muti, 1979.