On the Plot of “I Puritani”

Because I’m writing a chamber opera, I’m trying to lessen my woeful ignorance of the operatic repertoire. To that end, I’ve been watching a bunch of operas: lately, that’s included Wagner’s Ring cycle, Verdi’s La Traviata, and – today – Bellini’s I Puritani.

It’s a standard joke that opera libretti don’t make sense, but this one, by Count Carlo Pepoli, is particularly stupid.

Act One. Civil War England, and young Elvira is about to marry. She was promised to Riccardo, but Riccardo’s just been told by Elvira’s dad, Gualtiero, that Elvira really loves another, Arturo, and he would prefer that she married Arturo instead. Gualtiero tells Riccardo this, and Riccardo gets to sing a lament. But Gualtiero does not tell his own daughter. About her own wedding. Which is that day.

Because nobody tells her anything, Elvira gets to sing a lament about marrying the wrong man. Then her uncle tells her that she’s really marrying Arturo, that day. Later on, everyone’s surprised when Elvira goes batshit crazy.

All these people are Roundheads except for Arturo, who is a Royalist, but no-one seems to mind. When a female Royalist prisoner is introduced, and everyone sings about how the woman is doomed, it makes sense to leave her alone with the only other Royalist, Arturo, so they do. Arturo discovers the woman is Enrichetta, the widow of Charles I, and he promises to help her escape. Elvira lets Enrichetta wear her veil, and Arturo realises that with the veil on, she is the spitting image of his bride-to-be:

372px-Giulia_Grisi_som_Norma

A typical bel canto soprano

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A typical mezzo soprano (without the veil)

Arturo is hot-footing it out of there with the disguised Enrichetta when he is stopped by Riccardo, who figures he just has to kill Elvira’s lover before her eyes to win her heart forever. The prisoner reveals her true identity, and Riccardo lets them go. Elvira, abandoned at the altar, is convinced her lover has run off with another woman. Riccardo, because he loves her so much, doesn’t tell her that Arturo’s only a traitor.

Act Two.  Elvira goes batshit crazy. Riccardo and Elvira’s uncle sing a big duet about how they’ll kill Arturo if he fights with the Royalists in the big battle tomorrow. Oh, the big battle tomorrow, they sing – what a big battle the big battle tomorrow will be, they sing.

Act Three.  We don’t get to see the big battle. It’s months later and Arturo has returned to the Roundhead stronghold, because his escape was so successful. He and and Elvira meet up and she is relieved to discover he’s just a traitor and couldn’t be bothered, you know, dropping her a note or something. All seems well until the other Roundheads turn up, intent on showing Arturo his own entrails. Then Cromwell’s heralds arrive with the news that the Stuarts are all dead.

So everything’s alright: Arturo has his political dreams crushed and is saddled with a girl we know is always a hair’s breadth from going batshit crazy. And Riccardo will probably kill him the first chance he gets.

That said, there are some ravishing melodies, some brutal high notes, a mad scene worth celebrating, and historical revisionism: Cromwell, victorious at last, pardons all the Royalists. Yeah, right.

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