Piety, Passion and Madness, in 'I Puritani'
The opera takes place in the mid-1600s, during the English Civil War — a conflict between the Royalist supporters of King Charles I, called the Cavaliers, and the rebellious Parliamentarians and Puritans. The Puritans were often called Roundheads -- probably because they disdained the showy hairstyles of the time, and instead wore their hair closely cropped.
As the action begins, Charles has already been executed by the revolutionary Roundheads, but battles are still raging. ACT ONE opens at a Puritan fortress near Plymouth. The soldiers are anticipating final victory over the Royalists, and everyone is also looking forward to the wedding of Elvira, daughter of the local governor-general, Lord Walton.
But in the next scene, Elvira herself is worried. She has agreed to marry the Cavalier Arturo, a Royalist sympathizer, but she's afraid that her father will intervene, forcing her to marry the Puritan officer Riccardo instead. But her uncle, Walton's brother Giorgio, assures her that her father has consented to her wishes.
In the act's final scene Arturo arrives, bringing an elaborate wedding veil for Elvira. But as the ceremony approaches, there's a distraction. Walton's men have taken a Royalist prisoner, a woman they suspect is a spy. Arturo is left alone with her, and discovers her true identity: She's Queen Henrietta Maria, the widow of King Charles.
Arturo vows to save her, but their discussion is interrupted when Elvira runs in, wearing her bridal veil. Playfully, she shows it off by placing it on Henrietta's head — which gives Arturo an idea.
Elvira leaves, and he decides to disguise the queen with the veil, and help her escape. But on their way out they're caught by Riccardo. He pretends to be sympathetic, and lets them go. But soon after, he sounds the alarm and sends his troops off in pursuit.
When Elvira hears that Arturo has fled with another woman, she assumes that he has betrayed her. The act ends as the others express contempt for Arturo, and sympathy for Elvira, who is sounding a bit unhinged.
As ACT TWO begins, Elvira gone over the edge. In a hall at the Puritan fortress, Giorgio describes Elvira's pathetic state — how she's wandering aimlessly, with her hair in tangles, and wearing crude garlands of wildflowers.
Riccardo enters and announces that Arturo has been condemned to death. He's to be captured, and brought back for execution.
Elvira is heard outside and when she enters the hall, saying she can still hear Arturo's voice, Giorgio and Riccardo are distraught by her pathetic condition. In a vivid mad scene, she first tries to comfort the two men, and then has a rapturous vision of Arturo.
When Elvira is gone, Giorgio tries to exploit Riccardo's love for her, telling him that she'll never survive Arturo's death. At first Riccardo seems unmoved. He eventually agrees to spare Arturo but in a rousing duet that closes the act, both men agree that if Arturo is caught siding with the Royalists, he'll face execution.
At the start of ACT THREE, the fugitive Arturo has quietly entered the garden outside Elvira's rooms, and hears her inside, singing a song that he once taught her. Risking capture, he begins singing the same song.
Elvira hears him and comes outside. When she recognizes him, her sanity seems to be restored. They remember the happy times they had together and the pain of their separation. And Arturo explains why he fled the fortress with another woman — he was helping a condemned prisoner to escape.
Then, the sound of a military drum upsets Elvira. She again loses her sense of reality, and cries out for help. That brings Riccardo and Giorgio to the garden, along with a group of soldiers. Finding Arturo, the soldiers immediately seize him and call for his execution.
Hearing the death sentence brings Elvira back to her senses. Arturo says that he still loves her, and Elvira says she's willing to die at his side. Unmoved, the soldiers want to kill Arturo immediately, while Riccardo and Giorgio call for mercy.
As the men argue, a horn sounds and a messenger appears. He announces that Cromwell, the Puritan leader, has defeated the Royalists, and that a general amnesty has been declared. At that news, Arturo is freed. He embraces Elvira, and the gathering crowd wishes them happiness as the opera ends.