If you’re going to put in this little effort on something, why bother? That’s what I kept asking myself while watching the current production of I Puritani at the Lyric Opera. At every opportunity, it was made abundantly clear that they were not putting best effort into this one, and it shows. And it’s a shame because Bellini’s opera is good and could be great.
This shows much more like a staged and costumed concert than an opera. Park and bark throughout with minimal effort at characterization or attempting to even convey the meaning of the lyrics. If there is action, it is nearly unrelated to what is happening in the libretto. I firmly blame Director Eric Einhorn for the entire lack of interest in anything happening on that stage and the unintentional comedy when he actually gives people something to do.
While I was entering the Opera house, I overheard someone in the know saying that they reused the same set from the last time they staged I Puritani 25 years ago. It’s a decent set. The Act Two set, in particular, is splendid and perfectly recaptures the period when the opera is set. It’s mostly just fine, other than the weird, old-fashioned scrim curtain attempting to make it look like a grungy 17th Century landscape covered in bad lacquer that’s dimmed its brilliance. Much like everything about this production.
To begin with, Bellini’s opera has a fundamental disconnect with its subject matter. From the first second of it, I was saying to myself, “Dude, do you even Puritan?” Because making an opera about people who banned the celebration of Christmas along with most music, theatre, and dancing and in some regions made it ILLEGAL and punishable to do so, is weird on its face. But that’s the text of the opera and without singing there is no show, so you have to do that at the least, but you don’t have to turn 17th Century Puritans into 19th Century Italians. The fact that this production just galloped along with the error and had Puritans in brightly-colored gowns and clothing DANCING in the first scene was painful to watch. Puritans are not party people.
This staging of the opera didn’t even engage with its own text. That was what was so disappointing about it. There is so much there that you can do wonderful things with if you’d bothered with a few hours of Google research, yet nobody bothered to do any of that. I doubt anybody did anything but sort through the Opera’s inventory to pull out things that were vaguely period appropriate. Didn’t matter that they were from the wrong country, or the wrong class, or certainly the wrong religion. I guess they figured nobody would notice. They guessed wrong.
The soldiers, who were supposed to be Roundheads, were dressed like Spanish Conquistadors with high ridged Spanish-style helmets instead of the low ridged ROUND English-style helmets, for starters. It was like 20 Don Quixotes were marching across the stage instead of followers of Cromwell. Seriously, type Roundhead Helmet into your browser.
It would have been so EASY to have costumed this correctly, even with stuff you have lying around. Puritans dressed in dark, sober colors, dark blue, dark brown were particularly common as those were cheap dyes. Black was harder to come by and for the wealthy. There were societal rules about wearing slashed sleeves or gold or bright buttons, which were everywhere on that stage because they were just using costumes from other shows. The chorus should not have had any of those things, which would have set off the wealth of the principles and made a huge contrast between the Puritans and the Cavaliers. But everybody looked wealthy and Catholic. Cromwell would have crapped himself to see “Puritans” dressed like that. And then he would have arrested them as Royalists.
There is NO WAY Elvira should have ever worn light blue or white. Her maids should never have had a light color on them. That was VANITY to Puritans and guarding the purity of women was a huge priority for them like with all conservative religious loons. That meant they had to be plain. When Elvira is given the sparkly diamond necklace by her Cavalier beau, that is an enormous deal. Puritans wouldn’t be allowed jewels. Puritan men gave their betrothed thimbles because women were to be useful domestically. So by Elvira accepting and wearing the necklace, she was rejecting her own form of religion in favor of her prospective husband’s. That could have been a massive moment in this opera and it was not even acknowledged let alone played up. Seriously, ten minutes of Google would have given you that information.
There are so many others just like that.
This opera is packed with dramatic possibilities and none of it appeared on stage until Adrian Sampetrean showed up in Scene 2 of Act I as Uncle Giorgio. Thank God for him. He not only sang every bit of his part incredibly well, but he actually acted. He was compassionate, distraught, sorrowful and passionate by turns. Most of the time, he was the only one on stage acting. The rest of them sang their parts and stood in a spot and expressed nothing, relying on their voices and the lyrics to convey all meaning. That is not sufficient. You are on stage and people can see you. You owe them something to look at as well as hear.
And every time Samptrean was on stage, the other singers did better. They didn’t really rise to good, but they perked up a little and tried a little and it helped.
See also Lauren Decker as queen Enrichetta and Lawrence Brownlee as our Cavalier protagonist Arturo who show up at the end of Act I and then Arturo vows to save her. Every second Decker was on stage she was interesting. Her standing still was more interesting than other people moving around, because you could see she was fully committed and she was bothering to act. I wish she was in the opera more. Same with Brownlee, every time he showed up, everything got better because he was not only singing incredibly well, his voice is a treasure, but he was acting the hell out of his part and being as interesting an Arturo as he possibly could. Kudos to them for caring and trying when everyone else was content to just stand around ineffectually.
It is clear, again, that nobody bothered to do much blocking of this or to give the singers direction. Other than the atrocious dance at the beginning the Chorus literally milled about every time they were on stage. Or stood on steps like a choir on risers. This lack of staging is a continual problem at the Lyric. Particularly with their B-operas. I have seen high school productions in small towns with better blocking. It doesn’t have to be like this.
Albina Shagimuratova did exactly what she did last year in Lucia di Lammermoor and sang mostly well except for those few notes in her voice where she gets the weird overtones that sound like someone playing the saw. And just like last year, she barely acted at all, and when she did it was not good. There was random throwing of papers for no apparent reason and sleepwalking-looking “madness”. And she sang the entire Elvira going mad scene at the end of Act I into the prompter. Like standing down center stage staring directly down into it and never looking up. Elvira is a great role. She could have done so much with it and instead, we got sleepwalking. She also seems to need more direction than she’s getting. The Lyric is failing her.
I really felt terrible for Anthony Clark Evans as Sir Riccardo. He has a plummy role. The antagonist to Arturo, because he is not really a villain, but the rival for Elvira’s affections. And he spent the entire show staring off into space looking like he was thinking about where he was going to go get his dinner later instead of making the most of his star-turn part. This could have been a huge breakout for him, he sang beautifully but did nothing of interest. Evans is a strong singer with a terrific voice, but he clearly needs some kind of direction when it comes to acting out jealousy and longing and all the subtle things that his character should have shown us.
That’s what directors are for. But we got nothing. Except for unintentional comedy during the scene in Act III where the soldiers are searching for Arturo and he’s crouching down behind a bench in plain sight. It’s the lamest bit of stage direction ever.
I’d love to say go see this to see Sampetrean, Brownlee, and Decker, who are superb, but they’re just not on stage enough to make the tedious bouts of nothingness worthwhile. And I’d love to see Shagimuratova really knock it out of the park for once because she’s plainly skilled. I look forward to seeing them all again in other operas that serve them better. I would love to see I Puritani again with a production that actually cared to do something with it. It is a meaty story with so much potential and lovely melodies to sing. But don’t put in the effort to go down to the Lyric for this one, they clearly didn’t put much bother into staging it.
Photos by Todd Rosenberg and Andrew Cioffi