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I Puritani review – Welsh National Opera’s ‘confused update features exceptional singing’ at Wales Millennium Centre

Rosa Feola, Elena Thomas and Barry Banks in I Puritani. Photo: Bill Cooper Rosa Feola, Elena Thomas and Barry Banks in I Puritani. Photo: Bill Cooper
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Belfast-born director Annilese Miskimmon opens her staging of Bellini’s 1834 opera about Cavaliers and Roundheads in the church hall of an Orange Order group in 1970s Northern Ireland, where the drama’s heroine, Elvira – wonderfully sung by Italian soprano Rosa Feola – is on the point of being forced into marriage with a fellow Protestant; she, meanwhile, is in love with Arturo, whom the unsigned synopsis in the programme booklet describes as ‘a Catholic enemy’.

Such transfers of place and period (Bellini and his librettist place the action near Plymouth during the English Civil War) are common these days.

But then something strange happens: Elvira begins to hallucinate the story of the opera in its original 17th-century form, afterwards (in the person of actor Elena Thomas) watching the remainder of the show as it plays out in period frocks and wigs.

My guess is that those unacquainted with the official plot of an infrequently performed piece are going to wonder what’s going on. One might take greater exception to the close where, instead of being granted an amnesty and the hand of his beloved, in a cynical directorial gesture Arturo is executed by the Protestants/Puritans. Tenor Barry Banks consequently loses his written vocal lines at the close: instead one gains a harsh view of Northern Ireland’s Protestant community.

For all that, Miskimmon’s stagecraft, however wilfully employed, is expert, and the show looks good in Leslie Travers’ designs.

Vocally, this is a rewarding evening. As well as Feola’s exceptional Elvira, Barry Banks’ high-lying tenor and focused technique bring him considerable success as Arturo, while David Kempster is striking as his rival, Riccardo, and Polish bass Wojtek Gierlach presents a sterling account of Elvira’s uncle, Giorgio Valton.

Best of all is the sensitive conducting of Carlo Rizzi, who draws exceptional music-making from the WNO Orchestra and Chorus.

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Verdict
Bellini’s opera receives a confusing update from Annilese Miskimmon, but there is exceptional singing and sensitive conducting from Carlo Rizzi
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