Vincenzo Bellini’s “I Puritani” is set in Plymouth, and that and the title might have you thinking that this 1835 opera, the composer’s last, is the stirring tale of Pilgrims seeking freedom in the New World.
But we’re in Plymouth, England, during the civil war of the 1640s, and the struggle is between Puritan leader Sir Richard Forth and the Royalist Sir Arthur Talbot for the hand of Elvira, the daughter of the Puritan commander of the Plymouth fortress. The libretto, by Count Carlo Pepoli, doesn’t always make sense, but “I Puritani” offers some of Bellini’s most glorious bel canto writing, and at the Shubert Theatre, Boston Lyric Opera offers a solidly traditional, if sobering, production with a grim twist at the end.
John Conklin’s set, a large wooden platform on which the action takes place, has the virtue of improving the sight lines. Large panels depicting clouds (or smoke from cannon fire?) and fragments of buildings hang in the rear. The one oddity of the costuming is Elvira’s full-skirted, flame-red dress, and the less vivid red that the other Puritan ladies wear. The lighting, by Paul Hackenmueller, is subdued around the edges, shrouding principals in darkness. Steel-helmeted men with swords dominate the background; it’s very much a community at war. Crystal Manich’s stage direction is economical; there’s not a lot of movement, but what there is is effective.
It’s left to the principals, chorus, and orchestra to carry the opera, and they do. Apart from a few shrieky moments at the top, Sarah Coburn is a winsome Elvira, in control of her coloratura, vibrant in her bridal polonaise “Son vergin vezzosa,” slyly demented as she begins her mad song “Vien, diletto” after Arthur runs off with another. John Tessier is a callow, sweet-voiced Arthur, but it’s Troy Cook’s Richard, heartbreaking in his cavatina “Ah! per sempre io ti perdei,” who seems the more passionate lover, and there’s an excruciating moment when Elvira, thinking he’s Arthur, snuggles up to him. Paul Whelan is a commanding presence as Sir George Walton, Elvira’s sympathetic uncle, stalwart in his “Liberty Duet” with Richard. As Henrietta, widow of the late King Charles I, Chelsea Basler is animated enough to arouse Elvira’s suspicions, even though Arthur is merely trying to save his queen from the scaffold.
The heartbeat of this “Puritani” is the BLO Orchestra. Conductor David Angus lets the music unfold naturally, and the players trip lightly through Bellini’s lilting sicilianas and tarantellas and his martial marches.