Piety, Passion and Madness, in 'I Puritani'

woo-1641-puritani mainGiven opera's reputation for extreme passion, and lust-inspired violence, the opera house would seem an unlikely place for a story about dedicated, Puritan believers.  But that's exactly what we find at the heart of Vincenzo Bellini's last opera, I Puritani.

It's a love story set during the violent conflict between the Royalists and the Parliamentarians, led by the Puritan Oliver Cromwell, during the English Civil War in the mid-17th century.  And despite the piety of its main characters, Bellini was determined that his drama should have a vivid, emotional impact. During the opera's development, Bellini grew frustrated with the librettist, Carlo Pepoli, telling him that the opera "must draw tears, inspire terror and make people die, through singing" -- and suggested that Pepoli should carve those ideas in his head.

I Puritani premiered in Paris in 1835, just months before Bellini's death. But, unlike the final operas of many other great composers, it's not a contemplative drama, reflecting the thoughtful perspective of an aging artist. Bellini died when he was just 33 years old, at the height of his creative energy.

Bellini had moved from Italy to France in 1833. After observing the musical scene in Paris, he concluded that while French composers made skillful use of the orchestra, they had "little understanding of real song." So, in writing his first Parisian opera, he may have been teaching a sort of lesson in lyricism. Bellini said that he devoted "indescribable care" care to I Puritani and that's easily heard, as the opera features a string of Bellini's finest numbers.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents I Puritani  from the Royal Theater in Madrid. It features stand-out performances by the acclaimed Mexican tenor Javier Camarena and the exciting German soprano Diana Damrau, as the lovers Arturo and Elvira.  The production is led by conductor Evelino Pidò.