Some people believe all opera to be mad; there are certainly enough characters who go mad during productions of this 'exotic and irrational art' – as Johnson defines it.
Welsh National Opera has chosen madness as the theme for their 2015 Autumn Season of three. WNO, the UK's most sophisticated touring opera company, is resident at Birmingham's Hippodrome this week for five performances: these began on Tuesday with Vincenzo Bellini's I Puritani.
In today's austere cultural times, new productions of such Italian masterpieces are always welcome and this one about a Puritan bride who is stood up at the altar by her Cavalier groom, intent upon saving the head of his Royalist Queen, deserves an innovative approach.
Perhaps taking her conception from the Act III ramblings of the disturbed Elvira (separation from her beloved seems to her more like three centuries than three months) Belfast-born Annilese Miskimmon, who is responsible for this production, forwards the action from Cromwellian times to Northern Ireland and the troubles of 1970.
Rosa Feola's Elvira with Elena Thomas and Barry Banks as Arturo. Photo Credit Bill Cooper
It's bold and on the whole it works. Leslie Travers' sets and Mark Jonathan's lighting in Act I graphically set the scene – the dowdy church hall with its serving hatch, stacked plastic chairs, upright piano, patriotic banners and fluorescent lighting, all adding to the spin of paramilitaries preparing for an Orange Order march.
With early 19th century Bel canto opera riven as it is with religious vendetta, it's a great shout, and with Pepoli's far from inspirational libretto (as thin as the veil used to disguise the escaping Enrichetta) it focuses the drama.
One example of the plausibility of Miskimmon's take comes early: with the orchestra of WNO in imperial form under maestro Carlo Rizzi, the snatch of organ and bells that introduce O di Cromwell guerrieri (Oh Soldiers of Cromwell) fits well with the anti-Rome sentiments of the WNO Chorus of Orangemen as fervent in their delivery as any group of Loyalists from Crossmaglen.
As Act I continues, two soloists contribute much to this love story across the sectarian divide. As Riccardo Forth, having lost out in the love stakes, David Kempster is adequately broken hearted in Ah! Per sempre io ti perdei (Ah! Forever I have lost you), while as Elvira, Linda Richardson is charming in the polonaise veil scene. Her Son vergin vezzosa (I am a pretty maiden) presenting a carefree bride-to-be with some agile fioratura and a secure top.
High drama and opera in I puritani.
Reassured by her Uncle George (Wotjek Gierlach) that she is to marry her beloved Arturo in O amato zio (O beloved uncle) – a glorious duet that anticipates the many iconic Verdian duets of father-figure and daughter. Richardson, in her Puritan wedding gown that provides a prop that successfully links the narrative, graphically fluctuates between ecstasy and trauma.
She resorts to gulping down some pills and this triggers the psychosis of the PAF leader's daughter, and her alter ego appears in the form of the prim blue-suited Elena Thomas (a mimed role) never far away from the ensuing action.
As Arturo (Alessandro Luciano) approaches, it is a chorus of Puritans who honour him – but we are seeing events through the hallucinations of Elvira.
Miskimmon begins to take liberties and although traditionally Elvira's derangement commences as he is seen going over the wall, director Miskimmon advances it. As 'exotically' satisfying as the music continues to be, this sudden regression in time comes as a bit of shock, serving to substantiate the good Doctor's 'irrationality'.
Elvira is central to the plot in I puritani. Photo Credit Bill Cooper
As the condition of Elvira worsens with Gierlach's soulful bulletin, so the music of Bellini gets more beautiful.
Richardson reappears and at the height of her ordeal to give a vocal display that is a breath-taking blend of bewilderment and bellissimo in O rendetemi la speme (Either give me back hope). It's a tender heartfelt plea for her lover's return and Vien, diletto, ein ciel la luna (Come, beloved, the moon is in the sky) is her imagining of her Arturo there in the flesh.
It's stupendous, follow that.. And Bellini does with the popular baritone duet, Suoni la tromba (Sound the trumpet) that Kempster and Gierlach stirringly deliver in true fraternité fashion, their roots cleverly represented by sword and prayer book. It's a magnificent Act II.
Miskimmon saves her most startling reworking of Puritani for Act III, back in Northern Ireland. After a dramatic revelation by Luciano at 'La regina' and their subsequent reconciliation, the now IRA fugitive is condemned to death as the libretto details – Elvira now madder than ever.
Although a messenger arrives with the news of peace and pardon, the happy-ever-after closure of Bellini is denied and Arturo has his throat summarily cut. To me, this is a twist too far, at odds with the music.
Overall, I'd say this production is hugely rewarding musically, but a little frustrating on the interpretation front.