“In opera, it is the singing that moves one to tears, that causes horror, that inspires death. Good drama has nothing to do with good sense.” Librettists, take heed.
This was the sound advice seasoned composer Vincenzo Bellini gave to Carlo Pepoli, librettist for his final opera, “I Puritani” (“The Puritans”). Tonight, Boston Lyric Opera unveils a new production of this bel canto masterpiece, a fiery tale of religious mania, royal duty, and nearly thwarted love set around 1650 against the evocative military background of the English Civil War. Considered by many to be Bellini’s finest score, the rarely performed opera (completed in 1835) contains numerous bravura arias and duets for the two principals, the maiden Elvira and her conflicted suitor Lord Arturo Talbot.
Like Romeo and Juliet, Elvira (coloratura soprano) and Arturo (lyric tenor) are star-crossed lovers. Elvira is a Puritan, daughter of the commander of the fortress at Plymouth. (The one in Devon, not the one on the South Shore of Massachusetts named after it a few decades earlier by the Pilgrims, a radical Puritan group.) Arturo is a Cavalier, a supporter of the Stuart dynasty briefly overthrown by the anti-royalist insurgency led by Oliver Cromwell. Unlike Shakespeare’s tragedy, however, this story ends happily with the lovers reunited — somewhat abruptly, it’s true. But not before plenty of dramatic and vocal fireworks, including several celebrated mad scenes for Elvira, who believes (wrongly) that she has been jilted at the altar by her bridegroom Arturo. In fact, he has only been fulfilling his duty by helping Queen Henrietta, widow of the freshly executed Stuart monarch Charles I, escape to safety during a brief window of opportunity.
Got that now?
Although both Sarah Coburn and John Tessier, the singing actors who are taking the leading roles in the BLO production, admit that the opera’s plot strains credibility at times, they find it a “compelling story,” as Tessier observed in a recent joint interview conducted at Coburn’s temporary home in a high-rise near Haymarket. As we talked, Coburn’s two young daughters (Ruby and Katie Rose) vied for opera mom’s attention.
“What I do with an opera like this,” said Coburn, as Ruby played on her lap, “is to read the libretto and try to think how would I have lived through this story if I had lived at that time. How would it have affected me, all of my senses? I think it’s a mistake when we try to apologize for this repertoire because it’s not ‘realistic’ enough. It is storytelling, and it’s our job to tell it well.”
For Coburn, raised and trained in Oklahoma, Elvira’s trademark mad scenes are the “easiest part. Because madness on stage really frees you — you don’t have to stand still, you don’t have to look pretty. You can act inappropriately. In rehearsals we have been talking about how madness was a form of liberation for women in the society of this time, a way to escape from the oppression they felt, from all the expectations. In her music, she’s a little bit off from the very beginning. You can hear this kind of strangulation that a woman would likely feel at this time — especially if she’s the only female living in a fortress surrounded by men! She’s just a pawn, under pressure to be pure and perfect.”
As it happens, Coburn is the daughter of one of the US senators from Oklahoma, Tom Coburn, who is retiring from the Senate at the end of the current session. Her father was not originally an opera fan, she admitted (“I have taught him what he knows”), but is “very supportive and comes to my performances when he can.”
Tessier, a Canadian from Alberta, describes Arturo as “a slave to duty. When he recognizes the queen, he has to follow through and help her, even though to do so he has to temporarily abandon Elvira without explanation. So he is a very” — he hesitated while searching for the right words — “miserable guy! But what matters is establishing strong relationships between the characters on stage and making those relationships believable.”
Coburn and Tessier are appearing together on stage for the third time. In 2007 they starred in Bellini’s Romeo-and-Juliet opera, “I Capuleti e I Montecchi” at Glimmerglass Opera, and in 2012 made their BLO debuts together in Rossini’s “Barber of Seville.” Both have also worked previously with David Angus, BLO’s music director, who will conduct “I Puritani.” In recent years, the soprano and tenor have been heard in such prestigious houses as the Metropolitan Opera, Vienna Staatsoper, and English National Opera.
Over the years, some of opera’s greatest stars have made their mark in the showy roles of Elvira and Arturo: Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland, Luciano Pavarotti. The soprano soars to a high E-flat, and the tenor to a high F. “But I try not to think of what other singers have done, or of the high notes,” said Coburn. “It can’t be only about the high notes or it will be a boring evening.” Tessier agreed. “I don’t want the audience to close their eyes and only listen to beautiful singing. I want them to see how much I love her and how much pain we are in when we meet again at the end.”