Conductor: Giacomo Sagripanti
Lord Arturo Talbo: Xabier Anduaga
Elvira: Lisette Oropesa
Sir Riccardo Forth: Davide Luciano
Sir Giorgio: Gianluca Buratto
Enrichetta di Francia: Chiara Tirotta
Lord Gualtiero Valton: Nicolò Donini
Sir Bruno Roberton: Saverio Fiore
After a couple of family-centered interludes in small villages of the French countryside, I am now back in the maddeningly dysfunctional yet endlessly fascinating Italian city of Naples for the month of September, never mind that I had to trade—semi-reluctantly, I must say—my fancy but unfinished pied-à-terre in the historic center for more ordinary, but more modern, digs in the Arenella neighborhood. As they say, beggars cannot be choosers.
And I have been rather busy, with exciting explorations underground into the city’s famed network of tunnels and above ground of the neo-Renaissance Villa Pignatelli’s attractive museum and gardens, as well as sun-drenched excursions by sea to the colorful island of Procida, and by land to the sleepy community of Piedmonte Matese and to Caserta’s sumptuous Reggia, even squeezing in a one-day trip to my beloved Eternal City, on top of memorable meals and leisurely walks by the ever-scintillating Mediterranean.
Even better, the missing musical component to my Neapolitan life was added recently with a special offer from the landmark Teatro San Carlo consisting of premium parquet seats for a concert performance of Vincenzo Bellini’s bel canto masterpiece I Puritani. That’s when I knew I had arrived in Naples. Since for some inexplicable reason I had never come across this ubiquitous warhorse before, I immediately grabbed two tickets for my friend Vittorio and myself.
And then, Naples being Naples, on D-Day the ride to the performance turned out to be more action-packed than the performance itself. It all started with a subway strike that was supposed to be over by 3:00 PM, but was still going on at 5:00 PM. So we had to rush to the only reliable taxi stand nearby, where we jumped into the one taxi waiting, to then simmer for a while in agonizingly sluggish traffic, before miraculously surviving a mad dash through the Kafkaesque labyrinth that are the Quartieri Spagnoli for an arrival 15 minutes before start time.
And that’s how, on the last summer evening of the year, at the very civilized time of 6:00 PM, which is much appreciated when the projected running time is three and a half hours, we took our seats that were located two rows apart, a bit too close to the stage and a bit too far from the center—but again, beggars cannot be choosers—in an almost full house for Bellini’s last, but certainly not least, opera.
Although the plot of I puritani dutifully follows opera tradition with its star-crossed lovers, political intrigue, and lots of hand-wringing drama, it also eventually takes an unexpected turn and comes to a happy ending just as things look decidedly dire for the main protagonists. And then, just like that, nobody dies and all is well that ends well! But many twists of fate must be negotiated before reaching the uplifting conclusion, and all of them present daunting technical challenges to the four lead singers who dare to take them on.
A case in point would be the crucial role of Elvira, which for this run had serendipitously been assigned to the delicious American soprano Lisette Oropesa, one of the currently most esteemed opera singers in the world who, interestingly enough, is native of the jazz mecca that is New Orleans. Still young in years, but as self-assured as an old pro, she did not let the fact that she was making her double debut in the ruthlessly demanding role of Elvira at the prestigious Teatro San Carlo get in the way of brilliantly carrying out her mission.
Not content to just display her inherently beautiful and highly supple voice, she also proficiently acted out her part, with a little help of no less than four different dresses. One show-stopping number was for sure her triumphant ode to life and love in a classy white dress, which was pure enchantment to the eyes and the ears. That said, throughout the entire performance, her slim, almost girlish figure and demeanor stood in stark contrast to the formidable presence she had quickly established by rising above even the most potentially overwhelming waves of sounds from the orchestra with disarming ease and unyielding precision, strength, or nuance, confidently handling the dazzlingly high-flying acrobatics, as well as her character’s convoluted journey, without missing a beat. I am therefore happy to confirm that the world is now blessed with one more certifiably accomplished Elvira.
Her dashing love interest, Lord Arturo Talbo, was enthusiastically impersonated by Basque tenor Xabier Anduaga, who proved to be an ideal partner for Oropesa. Just about as young, skilled, and charismatic, he effortlessly slipped into the role of the romantic knight in no small part thanks to his handsome looks, determined disposition, and flawless clarion voice. One of the highlights of the evening was indisputably his superb rendition of the eagerly awaited aria “A te, o cara”, which he delivered with the perfect combination of ardor and poignancy.
Not to be outdone, his kind of adversary for Elvira’s heart (and hand), Sir Riccardo Forth, who was sung by Italian, Campania-born baritone Davide Luciano, wasted no time stating his position and his goal with a naturally resounding, elegantly burnished voice that seemed to originate from a very, very dark place. That said, Riccardo was in fact not the ultimate enemy, and he knew when to make himself useful too, even if it was mostly for his own benefit. And it is to Luciano’s credit that he was able to successfully walk that treacherous fine line.
Although the part of Sir Giorgio, Elvira’s well-meaning uncle/father figure, is less flamboyant, it is still essential to the story. Visibly aware of his place, Italian bass Gianluca Buratto provided solid and reliable support to the action and the performance. In fact, his duo with Davide Luciano for their blazing tribute to their homeland was so exhilarating that the audience vigorously demanded an encore... and got it!
The three smaller roles were all competently filled by a winning trio of Italian singers that included the mezzo-soprano Chiara Tirotta as the queen in distress Enrichetta di Francia, the bass Nicolò Donini and his impressive moustache as Lord Gualtiero Valton, and the tenor Saverio Fiore as the officer Sir Bruno Roberton, who had the dubious honor of opening the opera and then disappearing for most of it.
I never thought that I could admire a chorus as much as I admired the constantly reliable and extraordinarily versatile Met chorus throughout all the Met-going years, but I have to admit that my first encounter with the San Carlo chorus pretty much blew me away. In I puritani, the part of the chorus is so critical and mercilessly complex that it is often rightly considered the fifth singing lead. But that apparently did not seem any of its members, who all stuck together for a performance that was consistently terrific in its technical acuity and emotional power.
The same goes for the excellent orchestra, whose musicians played in impressive unison the relentless roller-coaster that is Bellini’s unabashedly glorious score (Just trying to imagine how many other masterworks he could have written if he hadn’t died at the lamentably young age of 33 is heart-breaking). Fully involved in the tiniest details while never losing sight of the big picture, Italian maestro Giacomo Sagripanti managed to keep everything under tight control, which was no small task considering the countless intricacies and sheer intensity of the composition. Adroitly shaping the scenes, efficiently supporting the singers, and energetically conducting the musicians, he resolutely brought all the various musical parts together to form a thrilling unified whole.
Once the highly calibrated and immensely satisfying performance had reached its happy end, and the many rounds of frenetic applause had subsided, we were back in the real world of exasperatedly disorganized Naples for a long wait in a long line at a taxi stand located in one of the most trafficked areas of the city, where no taxi was waiting.