Knoxville Opera’s 'I Puritani' Features Vocal Fireworks and an Improbable Plot

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Like Mozart, Schubert, and Mendelssohn, the Sicilian composer Vincenzo Bellini died in his mid 30s, cutting short an operatic career that was just beginning to bristle with production successes. Of Bellini’s 11 operas, though, only four enjoy regular productions today. And of those four, only three—I Puritani, La Sonnambula, and Norma—are done with any frequency. I Puritani, this season’s Rossini Festival offering by Knoxville Opera, was Bellini’s final work before his death in 1835, a death probably hastened by the physical toll the opera’s creation had taken.

Even more so than his contemporaries Rossini and Donizetti, Bellini was known as a major proponent of the bel canto (“beautiful singing”) style of opera. Beyond mere vocal fireworks, Bellini’s bel canto is exemplified by long, exquisite melodies punctuated by moments in which the singer’s vocal prowess emerges. I Puritani, premiered in Paris in 1835, was Bellini’s first production outside of Italy in what he hoped would be his inroad to the sophisticated world of Parisian opera. To that end, he tailored his work to showcase the vocal abilities of his four lead singers who had popular reputations throughout Europe.

Although a gorgeous example of bel canto vocal expressiveness, I Puritani is also known for having one of the most improbable plots among operas in the standard repertoire. The blame for this falls mostly on the shoulders of the librettist, an amateur poet and Italian expatriate Count Carlo Pepoli, and his adaptation of a recent stage play Têtes Rondes et Cavaliers, which itself was based on a work by Sir Walter Scott. Pepoli’s libretto, which seemed to have a number of agendas other than theatrical believability, nevertheless provided Bellini with enough reasonable structure to ensure a successful production.

Set during the English Civil War between supporters of Cromwell (the Puritans) and the Stuarts (the Royalists), the opera’s premise involves the usual romantic misunderstandings and ulterior motives set against the background of civil unrest.

Musically, Bellini’s score is filled with achingly beautiful vocal moments and its share of vocal gymnastics. In what seems to be a natural progression in casting, the Knoxville Opera production brings soprano Rachele Gilmore back to Knoxville as Elvira. Audiences will remember Gilmore for a sensational Lucia in last season’s Lucia di Lammermoor. Returning, too, from that production is baritone Nelson Martinez in the role of Sir Richard Forth.

Making his KO debut in the vocally high-altitude role of Elvira’s lover, Arturo, is tenor Yeghishe Manucharyan. Bass Daniel Mobbs will sing the role of Giorgio. Singers already familiar to Knoxville audiences will be Daniel T. Berry as Lord Walton, Elvira’s father; Harry House as Bruno; and Lorraine Di Simone as Henrietta, the widow of the executed Charles I.

James Marvel, who directed last season’s rollicking Barber of Seville, returns as stage director. The music director and conductor is KO executive director Brian Salesky.

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