Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Bellini: I puritani, broadcast of Met performance

The term Puritan has a scale of meaning. It was applied to those in the period of the English Civil War in the 1600s who favored Parliament and breaking away from Catholicism. But it also applied to strict religious beliefs practiced by settlers, particularly in Massachusetts (giving rise to Arthur Miller’s play “The Crucible”). The concepts are related but not necessarily synonymous. The reader can study this in detail, starting in Wikipedia and chasing references. The World Book, under England, gives a simplified history of the English Civil War with Cromwell. An examination of the shaded meanings of the term would make a good world history essay question.

On Sept. 4, 2007 MPT rebroadcast a Metropolitan Opera performance of Vincenzo Bellini’s “I Puritani” (“The Puritans”) where the term refers to the English Civil War, toward the end. This appears to be Bellini’s last opera. The Sicilian composer died at the age of 34. Russian soprano Anna Netrebko played Elvira. The story is a kind of “Romeo and Juliet” (or maybe something like the 70s novel “An Affair of Stranger” between a Palestinian and a Jew). Here Elvira, a “puritan” (or protestant) has fallen in love with a Royalist (Arturo). By the end of the opera, Oliver Cromwell has pardoned everyone in victory, so execution is avoided and the lovers can live happily ever after, as in a fairy tale.

Along the way, Elvira has some “mad scenes,” which Rene Flemming and Beverly Sills discussed in the second intermission. The musical style, very early romantic, seems diatonic and lightweight (with its long melodies and soprano high notes) given the convoluted seriousness of the historical material, and makes the experience seem a bit artificial. This is just the use of European history to tell a good story.

Even so, some of the lines convey a seriousness that transcends the atmosphere, as when Royalist soldiers sing about the military duties. In our world, that is a dead serious subject. And "Puritanism" in our American context suggests fundamentalism and even radicalism, and this opera underscores the possibility that this is not necessarily always so.

There is a little bit of gospel parallel. The first Act takes place near a fortress in Plymouth, England, which reminds us of Plymouth, MA.

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