Composer: Vincenzo Bellini
Conductor: Maurizio Benini
Director/Producer: Sandro Sequi
Elvira: Diana Damrau
Arturo: Janier Camarena
Giorgio: Luca Pisaroni
Riccardo: Alexey Markov
Another night at the opera, another pair of star-crossed lovers who just can’t seem to get a break, although those eventually will. Yes, amazingly enough for an opera that is not a comedy, nobody dies in Bellini’s I Puritani! The thin plot not being an irresistible magnet, my only reason to make it to the Met on Wednesday evening was to finally get to experience hot, hot, hot Mexican tenor Javier Camarena live – Never mind our missed rendez-vous on the evening of Valentine’s Day – without having to endure any of the insufferably silly bel canto operas like La fille du régiment or La sonnambula again. And since he would be joined by the dazzling Diana Damrau, I also figured that I would probably never be able to get to know the opera in better company.
My palpable excitement was apparently contagious enough to infect my indefatigable friend Vy An, so we found ourselves one more time eating our traditional take-out pizza slice on the Lincoln Center Plaza while getting mentally prepared for another music-filled evening.
In this case, we were gearing up for three and a half hours, including two intermissions, of drama-with-a-happy-ending taking place in England during the Civil War and sung in Italian by a Mexican tenor, German soprano, Italian bass-baritone and Russian baritone. A ready-made advertisement for multiculturalism if there ever was one.
When the time came to witness Javier Camarena in action at long last, all I can say is that I went, I heard, and I was bowled over. From the tender “A te, o cara” to the thrilling “Credeasi misera”, he displayed a stupendous range and an incredible knack for throwing vibrant, colorful high notes into the stratosphere as if it were his one and only mission in life, which it actually may very well be. His genuinely warm, deeply lyrical voice could effortlessly go from bright clarion to achingly gentleness, and he clearly had no problem projecting his blazing fireworks all over the house to the audience’s endless delight. Bottom line is, when it comes to Javier Camarena, you can believe the hype.
It is basically impossible to ever get enough of the divine Diana Damrau, one of the most beloved Met regulars, and after thoroughly enjoying her as the teenage Juliette last month, I was eager to hear her again in the slightly more mature role of Elvira, the sweet young woman who goes mad after her betrothed runs off with another woman. Blessed with a truly melodic and extremely flexible voice that she used with laser-like precision, Diana Damrau was an endearingly innocent and painfully vulnerable Elvira, throwing herself into the part with her typical fervor, especially for a “Qui la voce” that will be remembered for a long time.
Everybody else was likely to pale next to this incandescent pair, but bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni and baritone Alexey Markov managed to draw some solid characters as, respectively, Giorgio, Elvira’s good-hearted uncle, and Riccardo, the dashing young man who can’t take no for an answer. Both were having a fine night on Wednesday, Luca Pisaroni confirming why he has become one of the Met’s most popular singers with solid singing and dramatic commitment, and Alexey Markov making a very positive impression with the meaty part of the story's villain.
The Met chorus, one of the prized jewels of New York’s opera scene, proved as efficient as ever, lending its peerless singing power to the vocal feast.
If the singing was top-notch, the production on the other hand was less than attention-grabbing, although in all fairness it did create some pleasant-looking, if hopelessly conventional, tableaux. But even if those were relevant, they did not by any means justify all the “brief pauses” for set changes we had to wait through and which, added to the already lengthy intermissions, stretched an opera that did not have a lot of action to begin with into a much longer affair than it had to be.
To make things even worse, the pace in the pit was uncharacteristically sluggish as conductor Maurizio Benini never got around to nailing down Bellini’s groove. The endlessly versatile orchestra nevertheless did a more than decent job in bringing the subtly beautiful score to life, and all was well in the world again in the third act when all musical forces converged into the intensely rousing duet between Elvira and Arturo “Vieni, fra queste braccia”, in which the revved-up singers resolutely took matters into their own hands and delivered a show-stopping performance that actually stopped the performance for almost as long as the aria itself, effectively showing the maestro and the rest of us how bel canto is really done. And that was more than enough to make our evening.