I puritani

The opera world’s current big buzz is over tenor Juan Diego Florez’ performance in the Met’s production of Donizetti’s The Daughter of the Regiment; his aria "Ah, mes amis," which he encored on opening night in a "historic" moment ("historic" meaning that no one had sung an encore at the Met since aaaaall the way back in 1994); and the nine high Cs that earned him that honor. (Actually, what the aria calls for is a pair of adjacent Cs—same note, different syllable—in a phrase repeated four times, with a bonus C at the end.)Well, on Saturday, the opening night of Seattle Opera’s production of Bellini’s I puritani, tenor Lawrence Brownlee managed a rather nice high F, a full fourth higher. A fourth is the interval between the first two notes of, for example, Wagner’s Wedding March. To get an idea of Brownlee’s feat as compared to Florez’, sing "Here" on a note at the top of your range. OK, now sing "comes the bride."The audience jumped. Even more exciting and unexpected, though, was Seattle Opera’s ability to make something absorbing—an actual story—out of this rather thin and convention-bound opera (something the Met couldn’t manage with its Puritani, despite the presence of glamour-diva Anna Netrebko, in its movie simulcast last season). The setting is the English Civil War, the conflict is between Stuarts and Cromwellians-—not that it matters. Change a few proper names and the girl-loses-boy-goes-nuts plot wouldn’t make an atom less sense among any other pair of feuding factions—-Montagues and Capulets, Hutus and Tutsis, Microsoft and Yahoo employees.When Brownlee’s character, Arturo, is obliged—-on his wedding day-—to run off and save the incognito Queen Henrietta, his abandoned fiancee Elvira snaps. The high-wire act of her two mad scenes—-three for those sopranos, like SO’s Norah Amsellem, who don’t seem to be fully healed when reunited with Arturo in act 3—-is the main justification for reviving the work, and Amsellem more than made it all worth the effort. She floats some very pretty high notes and also sounds secure singing them full out, though her singing does have some clarity issues, with occasional smearing and scooping in her legato phrases and fioritura. Despite that, she acts the holy hell out of the part-—she really does seem to be on some other mental plane, or planet, than the rest of the characters, in an edge-dancing, risk-taking performance of 200% commitment.Brownlee’s singing is damn near impeccable, full of both heart and precision. His ability to make his singing seem utterly effortless—-his notes sound like they’re simply loosed rather than delivered—-is something I’ve heard only one other SO singer manage at that level, and that’s Jane Eaglen. As Riccardo, the quasi-villain who’s the other point of the triangle, Mariusz Kwiecien only has one major solo turn, so he made the most of it, with artistry and breath control up to the challenge of the composer’s endlessly unfurling melodies—-just when you think he’s bringing a phrase to a cadence, Bellini finds some clever way to extend it. The fourth principal, John Relyea, brought a bass of great splendor and warmth to the role of Elvira’s uncle.Peter J. Hall’s full-on storybook costumes were handsome, as was Robert A. Dahlstrom’s scaffoldy unit set, though the incongruity of these two elements remained distracting throughout. Actually, the set’s unabashed utilitarianism made a pretty good metaphor for the plot-—a rack on which to hang all those fancy-dress genre pieces, the love duets and military marches, which make bel canto opera so dramatically ludicrous and so fun nevertheless. GAVIN BORCHERT7:30 p.m. Wed. & Sat., plus Fri., May 16; 2 p.m. Sun. Ends May 17.

Wednesdays, Saturdays, 7:30 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m.; Fri., May 16, 7:30 p.m. Starts: May 3. Continues through May 17, 2008

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