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Backstage glimpses with Boston Lyric Opera

I Puritani Interview with Mary Ann Smart

May 2, 2014 4:09:00 PM
By BLO Staff

BLO Dramaturg,
Magda Romanska talks to Mary Ann Smart, Professor of Music at the University of
California, Berkeley about I Puritani
Professor Smart is the author of the book, Mimomania: Music and Gesture
in Nineteenth-Century Opera
, the
editor of the
critical edition of Donizetti’s last opera, Dom Sébastien, and of the
articles on Bellini and Donizetti for the revised Grove Dictionary of Music and
Musicians
.  She
has published articles on the lives and public images of
nineteenth-century female singers, and on the ways madness is depicted in
opera.  In 2007, Smart was
awarded the Dent Medal by the Royal Musical Association and the International
Musicological Society.
  Her book Waiting for Verdi: Opera and
Political Opinion in Italy, 1815-1848
 will
be published next year.
MR: There is more than one version of
the
I
Puritani
libretto. Can
you tell us a bit about the differences between various versions?
MAS: The "definitive" text of I Puritani, as musicologists would
usually define it, is not that much in doubt. 
We know what was performed in Paris in January of 1835 when Bellini was
present and supervising the performance. 
Where things become complicated is the fact that, even before the Paris
première, Bellini had begun work on an adapted version of the score for Maria
Malibran to sing at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples.  These performances did not take place and
Malibran never actually sang the role, because delivery of the score to Naples
was delayed by a cholera epidemic and Malibran died soon after.  But Bellini's autograph of the "Malibran
version" survives, and it shows that he introduced several changes. 
MR:
Can you tell us about some of these changes?
MAS: The less significant of these changes, which
shouldn't affect our perception of Bellini's intentions for the opera, include
the transposition down a third of Elvira's music, to suit Malibran's range, the
re-organization of the opera into two acts instead of three, and the
elimination of the duet for Giorgio and Riccardo at the end of Act 2
("Suoni la Tromba") which was cut in anticipation of Neapolitan
censorship.   More interesting are the
variations of the final scene: in the Malibran version, Bellini re-assigns the
main line in the final duet cantabile ("Credeasi Misera") to Elvira
instead of Arturo, and concludes with a new cabaletta for Elvira conceived for
Malibran ("Ah Sento, O Mio Bell'angelo").   Many listeners feel that the finale works
better with the cabaletta, but we have no documentation clarifying whether
Bellini made this change simply to showcase Malibran and to flatter her with a
new piece conceived especially for her, or whether he also sensed some weakness
in the finale.  In the absence of such
indications, I would take the original Paris ending as "definitive"--
although this philological judgment (of course!) need not be binding on
performers.
MR:   I
Puritani
is considered structurally challenging. What
do you think are the most difficult aspects of the dramatic structure?
MAS: The libretto (and hence also the score) do have an
unusual structure.  Here are some of the main idiosyncrasies:
·        
The three mad scenes,
one in each act, are difficult to pull off without loss of momentum, although
each one has a distinct musical, dramatic, and formal profile.
·        
The reasons that
Elvira and Arturo cannot marry are less clearly articulated than in many
contemporary operas, relying on slightly obscure political allegiances rather
than a clear paternal blocking figure.
·        
The third act is
strangely dominated by the movements of soldiers on and off the stage,
punctuating and interrupting the private drama.
·        
There's more chorus than
usual, and the choruses are often dreamy and atmospheric;
·        
there's a huge amount
of offstage music--beginning from the off-stage chorus in the very first scene,
through the offstage beginning of Elvira's "Son Vergin Vezzosa" and
of her Act 2 mad scene, and the romanza she sings as a signal to Arturo early
in Act 3.  This has the effect of making the drama seem ghostly and
ephemeral in an interesting and innovative way, but one that may strike
spectators as pale or undefined.
·        
Each of the three acts
has an unusual shape, not quite following the usual build through solo numbers,
ensembles, and dramatic climaxes.  
MR: Bellini’s letters indicate that he blamed his librettist,
Carlo Pepoli for some of these challenges…
MAS: These features are usually laid at the door of the
librettist Carlo Pepoli, who was a political exile and Bolognese nobleman who
was making his first stab at libretto writing with  I Puritani
(He later wrote a couple more.)  Pepoli's lack of experience is
undeniable, but it's very doubtful that the opera's unusual structure is
actually the result of accident or librettist failure.  For one thing,
Bellini was on the spot in Paris setting the terms as the libretto took shape,
and we know that he exerted a strong hand about certain aspects of the
planning.  For another, across his career Bellini himself had an unusual
attitude to operatic drama and pacing, always being far more interested in the
cadences and echoes of individual poetic lines than any other composers of the
time and, consequently, less concerned with medium- or large-scale dramatic
pacing and tension.  You can see many of the same features in his
opera  La Straniera (La Scala, 1829), based on a libretto by
the excellent and experienced Felice Romani.  And where  I Puritani is
criticized for shadowy form,  La Straniera was at the time
recognized as breaking new ground in romantic opera.
MR: I Puritani exhibits many characteristics
of the Romantic drama. Can you tell us in which way the opera was
characteristic for its era?
MAS: The opera has
several obvious features in common with the more frequently performed Lucia
di Lammermoor
, especially the mad scenes for soprano that feature musical
reminiscences of past happiness and hallucinated weddings.  This and the
focus on a few passionate individuals caught up in, and victimized by, an
impersonal machinery of state and civil war, are the features that would
usually be identified as "romantic" in this opera.  But I think
there's much more to it: the ghostliness and predominance of off-stage singing
that I described above places  I Puritani in dialogue with a
group of French plays, ballets, and fiction from the 1820s and 1830s, and
establishes its romantic pedigree in a more interesting and more specific
way.  
MR: What
are some of the major themes that you think still speak to modern audiences?
MAS: This is the
hardest question for me, as I don't really think of 19th-century opera as
realist or as having much direct relevance to contemporary life or
experience.  (For what it's worth I don't think these operas were heard
this way when they were first performed, either; people enjoyed the play of
structures, contrasts, virtuosity, and vocal vulnerability, rather than
worrying about or identifying with the characters.)  When forced to think
in these terms, I notice that Elvira is interestingly indeterminate--certainly
not voiceless, but much more buffeted by the forces around her (including her
uncle, the nominal authority figure) than is Lucia di Lammermoor in similar
circumstances.  There's less clear conflict and opposition between Elvira
and the authorities that surround her, and at the end of Act I she comes only
gradually to a realization of her situation.  In some ways this seems more
real and more interesting than Lucia's sudden move from outright defiance (at
the beginning of Act 2) to madness and death in Act III.  Elvira is always
feeling her way, musically, and perhaps it gets her further than Lucia's
relative clarity of thought.  

Finally, although the military and political background of the Civil War is not
very clearly articulated in the libretto, the music somewhat makes up for this
with all the off-stage marches in the last act.  I'd be interested in
seeing modern productions that made more of this dimension of the plot, perhaps
capitalizing on or drawing out the first-hand experience of armed conflict that
librettist Carlo Pepoli had in 1831 and also (less directly) the over
revolutionary sympathies of several members of the original cast and original
audience.  Both Giulia Grisi and Luigi Lablache contributed money to the
revolutionary cause of Giuseppe Mazzini, and became good friends of his in London
soon after 1835.

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