I confess – I went to the Met last night with a why-the-fuss attitude. Widely mediated Russian soprano Anna Netrebko starring Bellini’s Puritani covered with benign reviews of usually fearsome critics. This is always something to be suspicious about. What is beyond debate is she more than meets the look for the role. And moves gracefully and, even with apparently no stage direction (at least that is the way everybody else seemed to behave), has imagination for some beautiful stage gestures. That is already something. She also had a concept to the role – and now that is pretty commendable and even rare. Although the opera is named I Puritani, her Elvira had nothing cold about her. Her unusually sensuous passionate attitude bridled by noblesse-oblige modesty made her sudden insanity more believable than usual: sexual frustration allied to romantic disappointment could do that. What about the voice then? Netrebko’s slightly dark-tinted creamy-all-the-way homogeneous soprano is per se something to marvel. Hers is indeed an admirable voice – and used with unfailing technique. The problem remains if Giulia Grisi’s Elvira is a role fit to that voice. If you have Sutherland, Gruberová or Mariella Devia in mind, the answer is obviously “no”. Netrebko is no soprano coloratura – but there is nothing to be ashamed about that. Neither was Caballé – and she recorded the part (among many other bel canto roles) for Muti, with Alfredo Kraus. And, as much as Caballé, she adopts this cleverest motto (and that’s valid for everything in life): when you have to do something you are not comfortable with, do it your way. So she does – using all her LYRIC soprano powers, she pulled out an expressive touching Elvira, a true Romantic heroine. It cannot be denied that her passagework is not athletic, but slower tempi and solid legato made everything sound dependable and musicianly. Some may complain her in alts were short-lived, but all her excursions above top c were solidly produced. As for the much denounced pitch situation, yes, a couple of notes were not true to the expected frequency, but ultimately… who cares?! Netrebko proved to master the most difficult element in bel canto: she colours her voice with unending variety and is an expert in playing with tempo for expressive purposes. Let’s take for example the cabaletta in her mad scene. Instead of trying to dazzle the audience with pyrotechnics (unavailable to her, truth be said), she delicately handled Bellini’s strings of notes to depict the wanderings of Elvira’s mind with the expertise of an actress. I had read that she would do something like that, but I could only believe it when I saw that. Amazing.
American tenor Eric Cutler took the part of Arturo and, as much as his leading lady, he knows the art of expressive phrasing and, what is more, his Italian sounds really legit. His voice is not exquisite in itself, but it is capably used – and he has physique de rôle. Franco Vassallo tackled Riccardo’s act I aria impressively – his is a solid dark baritone – and produced bright forceful high notes with commendable ease. Later he would prove somewhat awkward when Bellinian lines revealed themselves a bit more tangled. As for John Relyea, he is a reliable singer, but his bass sounds curdled too often in this kind of role. That said, how many truly commendable basses have appeared in a Bellini opera? Pity. Patrick Summers accommodates the needs of his singers as this repertoire requires, but does not command his orchestra to produce the graceful and light sounds this score asks for. Sandro Sequi’s uninspired staging is supposed to take second place in the proceedings, but the truth is a beautiful prima donna such as Netrebko deserved costumes that took more advantage of her figure and that made her look more diaphanous (as one could see otherwise in the similarly uninspired production of Lucia from the same theatre) and scenery that could anticipate the beauties reserved by the composer.