Time Machine: I puritani at the Gran Teatre del Liceu

Bellini – I puritani

Lord Gualtiero Valton – Gianfranco Montresor
Lord Giorgio – Marko Mimica
Lord Arturo Talbo – Javier Camarena
Sir Riccardo Forth – Mariusz Kwiecień
Sir Bruno Roberton – Emmanuel Faraldo
Enrichetta di Francia – Lidia Vinyes-Curtis
Elvira – Pretty Yende

Cor del Gran Teatre del Liceu, Orquestra Simfònica del Gran Teatre del Liceu / Christopher Franklin.
Stage director – Annilese Miskimmon

Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, Catalonia.  Sunday, October 14th, 2018.

Just before the curtain rose on this performance of I puritani, the eighth of eleven, the Director of the Gran Teatre del Liceu, Christina Scheppelmann, appeared on stage to address the audience with a short speech paying homage to the late Montserrat Caballé.  We then heard an extract from a 1970 performance of Norma, that incomparable voice resounding one final time through the house on the Rambla the Catalan diva called home.  It was a fitting tribute to a great artist but also a fitting opening to an evening in which we were treated to some spectacular singing.

Photo: © Antoni Bofill

The staging was the work of Annilese Miskimmon.  She starts with an intriguing premise, setting the action in the north of Ireland during the 1970s.  Setting this work about sectarian conflict in a place in which, even today, the wounds of the Troubles are still very much raw, is a very solid basis for a production concept.  The problem, it seems to me, is that Miskimmon takes it one step further and sets Elvira’s loss of reason in a traditional seventeenth-century setting – as if Elvira is fantasizing about another Elvira from the past.  The result was that we saw the ‘old’ Elvira singing and acting the role, with an actress playing the ‘new’ Elvira in a blue suit, roaming the set and gesticulating wildly from the other side of the stage.

Photo: © Antoni Bofill

Fundamentally, this pointed to what I perceived as a lack of a coherent theatrical argument.  Again, the idea of the past feeding into the present is a convincing one, it’s just that the way the transition was made, felt perfunctory and unconvincing.  The direction of the cast was disappointing – far too often the chorus was parked in rows or asked to perambulate around the stage in circles.  Fortunately, with such electrifying singing-actors on stage as Pretty Yende, Javier Camarena, Marko Mimica and Mariusz Kwiecień, the dramatic temperature rose through the strength of these individual performances.

Photo: © Antoni Bofill

Another slight disappointment was the highly manicured conducting of Christopher Franklin.  While tempi were nicely swift in places, attack in the strings felt too plush, missing the essential crispness required to drive the drama forward.  Tension dropped frequently thanks to an indulgent stop-start approach.  The house band played well for him – string intonation was true and the brass was full and accurate all night.  Conxita Garcia’s chorus was on good form, negotiating their perambulations around the stage diligently.

Photo: © Antoni Bofill

Ultimately, tonight was about the singing of the principals – and what singing we were treated to!  Yende gave us a staggering Elvira.  The voice is bright, with a lunar beauty and remarkable ease on high, pealing out ecstatic acuti.  What struck me most, was the ease with which Yende seemed to sustain endlessly long, limpid lines at the top of the voice, with some ravishing soft singing.  Her ‘son vergin vezzosa’ showed her able to turn the corners nicely.  Similarly, her ‘vien diletto’ displayed a total mastery of being able to sing on the breath, combined with impeccable musicality, the line beautifully embellished.  Tonight, Yende made it sound like only she, and she alone, could sing this music.

Photo: © Antoni Bofill

The Liceu audience went absolutely wild after the big Act 3 duet between Elvira and Camarena’s Arturo, rewarding the pair with the most ecstatic (and seemingly endless) mid-act ovation I’ve ever heard.  That explosion of joy from the audience was a result of watching two artists at the top of their game pinging thrilling high notes off each other, as well as absolutely immaculate runs.  As with Yende, what struck me with Camarena was his ability to make those stratospheric acuti more than just showpieces – he made them into both an implicit part of the line but also an expression of his character’s love and frustration.  His tenor is immaculately well-placed, forward and resonant, and he always sang off the text with Italianate ardour.

Photo: © Antoni Bofill

Kwiecień’s Riccardo brought out his familiar stylistic understanding.  He withdrew from the first performance of the run due to illness and it must be mentioned that a certain dryness to the tone suggested that he still wasn’t quite on top form.  He did rally for Act 2, bringing out that familiar warm, bronze tone with a metal core.  Still, that sheer understanding of the idiom that cannot be taught combined with that notable ability to communicate through notes, text and physicality, the range of expression he brought to his music, all gave an enormous amount of pleasure.  There’s something in the directness of his communication that really brought his character to life.  His big duet with Marko Mimica’s Giorgio was suitably rousing, the two sparring off each other with warm, well-blended tone.  Mimica’s wonderfully lyrical bass sang his aria with clean negotiation of the intervals and an easy legato.  We also had a full-voiced Gualtiero from Gianfranco Montresor and a fruity Enrichetta from Lidia Vinyes-Curtis.

Photo: © Antoni Bofill

Tonight we were given a feast of bel canto from a cast who thrilled the public with staggering singing.  Far too often, this music can feel simply about technical tricks.  What distinguished this cast is that they genuinely made it mean something – those stratospheric high notes, the flawless runs, were not just there for effect, but used to create and illustrate the drama and build genuine, believable characters.  There is a tinge of regret that the staging felt somewhat messy and unconvincing, and that the conducting was overly plush.  And yet, to be able to see singing of this quality combined with such profound stylistic and musical understanding is an absolute privilege.  To experience that rush of joy, from an audience blown away by a cast who thrilled with the fruits of years of hard work to produce something truly extraordinary, is simply unforgettable.  This was a spectacular night in the theatre.  There’s only one performance with this cast left.  Lovers of great singing need to get to Barcelona to see it.

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