Review: Illness Provides Yende Unexpected Opportunity to Triumph at the Met
By Christopher Johnson, Contributing Writer, February 15, 2017
The Met’s current revival of Bellini’s I Puritani became an instant must-see, with reportedly thrilling performances in the leading roles by Diana Damrau, one of our greatest singing actresses, and Javier Camarena, only the third artist in living memory to have earned an encore in the house, and that thrice.
But Damrau, who has been fighting illness all winter and had to cancel a much-anticipated recital with harpist Xavier de Maistre at very nearly the last minute in December, sat out Tuesday night’s performance. Pretty Yende took her place.
It was a night to remember.
Camarena’s Arturo was every bit as good as expected, but Yende’s Elvira was spectacular in every way. She had only sung the role once before, in a non-traditional production last year in Zurich. It was a triumph for her, and Tuesday night’s performance, in a staging that could not possibly have been more different, has to count as another.
As singing, it was not perfect—Yende has something of a beat in her voice that takes a little getting used to, and she sometimes merged with the orchestra when she should have been floating above it—but as musical expression, it was peerless, and as a progressive revelation of character, it was meticulously thought-out and deeply convincing. Her acting was psychologically acute, finely detailed, and perfectly meshed with the rest of the production—an astonishing achievement, given that Elvira is one of the most challenging roles in the repertoire, both musically and theatrically, and that Yende had had three days, at most, to learn the staging.
All the famous high-points were solid—the extended mad-scene in Act Two, beautifully sung and brilliantly acted, got a huge ovation, and rightly so—but the little things were even more impressive, from Yende’s telling gradations of posture to her eloquent, but always perfectly natural, handling of props. Even Camarena, never the most vivid of actors, got caught up in her energy, and their final clinch in Act Three stopped the show. Truly. As in, they could not continue for a long time because the audience would not shut up.
To paraphrase Miss Elizabeth Bennet, I believe it is the established mode to express a sense of disdain for Sandro Sequi’s production, originally cooked up for Joan Sutherland and Luciano Pavarotti, and now more than forty years old. I liked it. It was simple and uncluttered, and the sets, by the profoundly influential designer Ming Cho Lee, are still lovely in a Constable-Turner watercolor vein that matches Bellini’s sound-world perfectly. The physical staging does only what the script requires, and eschews activity for activity’s sake, and while this can be seen as stodgy and unimaginative, a throwback to the kind of “concert in costume” that Very Large Persons like Sutherland and Pavarotti favored, it also allows plenty of scope for imaginative, physically inventive actors like Yende and Luca Pisaroni, who played Elvira’s beloved uncle Giorgio, and for the Met’s great chorus, which had little to do except to line up or gather in clumps, look on with great concern, and comment with appropriate feeling, and that they did magnificently.
I have rarely seen or heard anything as beautiful, or as touching, as Giorgio’s troubled narration at the beginning of Act Two, supported by choral singing that equalled Margaret Hillis’s Chicago Symphony Chorus or Robert Shaw’s Atlanta Symphony Chorus in their salad days, and the crowd-staging that cleared the way for Elvira’s ghostly entrance down a long flight of stairs was as simple, and as magical, as her subsequent mad-scene was deeply-layered and harrowing.
The orchestra was magnificent, too, and Maurizio Benini, who serves as the Met’s de-facto house-conductor for this kind of show, was right on the money: there were exquisite fluctuations of tempo, perfectly coordinated between stage and pit, that took the breath away, and cumulatively demonstrated Bellini’s masterful control of theatrical tension.
Bellini doesn’t get enough credit for harmonic originality and brilliance as an orchestrator: Berlioz, of all people, once snapped “Have you no shame?” when a Roman music-seller tried to show him some operas “dal celeberrimo maestro signore Vincenzo Bellini;” you’d think he would have recognized a fellow trailblazer. Puritani is full of amazing instrumental effects, including hair-raising independent parts for the basses and quiet mutterings from the timpani that wouldn’t have been out of place in the Symphonie fantastique. Benini and the Met Orchestra did them full justice.
A packed house erupted in bedlam where appropriate. Otherwise, you could have heard a pin drop. Another New York miracle, and a great night in the theatre.
I Puritani at the Metropolitan Opera through February 28 (seen on February 14, 2017). Music by Vincenzo Bellini, with a libretto by Carlo Pepoli; conducted by Maurizio Benini; production by Sandro Sequi; revival directed by Sarah Ina Meyers; sets by Ming Cho Lee; costume design by Peter J. Hall; lighting design by Gil Wechsler. Pretty Yende (Elvira), Javier Camarena (Arturo), Alexey Markov (Riccardo), Luca Pisaroni (Giorgio), Eduardo Valdes (Sir Bruno Robertson), David Crawford (Gualtiero), Virginie Verrez (Enrichetta).
Cover photo: Soprano Pretty Yende as Elivra in an unexpected debut in Belini’s ‘I Puritani;’ Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera