Vincenzo Bellini (1801–1835) is known for three major operas: La Sonnambula (1831), Norma (1831), and I Puritani (The Puritans, 1835). I Puritani was Bellini’s last, and it was composed between 1834 and 1835 specifi cally for the Théâtre-Italien in Paris. During the time he was writing the opera, Bellini was close to Rossini, whose presence in the operatic life of Paris loomed large. Although there was a subtle animosity between them, Bellini is said to have valued Rossini’s advice; likewise, Rossini came to appreciate the younger composer’s talent.
The libretto for I Puritani was written by Count Carlo Pepoli, and it was based on a historical drama, Têtes Rondes et Cavaliers (1833, The Roundheads and the Cavaliers), written by Jacques-Arsene Polycarpe François Ancelot, and Joseph-Xavier Boniface, and set during the English Civil War (1641-49). Led by Oliver Cromwell, the Roundheads (also known as Parliamentarians) were the Puritan supporters of the English Parliament. Their opposition, the Cavaliers, were the Royalist supporters of King Charles I. In 1649 Charles I was executed, and from 1649 to 1653 the Parliamentarians ruled England. In I Puritani, the English Civil War provides the historical context, but it is nondescript. It serves as a dramatic vehicle for the story of the star-crossed lovers Elvira and Arturo as told via music, and it could be replaced with any other military conflict.
This was the first time Bellini had changed his librettist, replacing the experienced Felice Romani with Pepoli. Bellini ended up very pleased with the final results, but about Pepoli, he wrote: “He’s better than anyone else, but he is no Romani.”
When the opera premiered, under the direction of Domenico Ferri, it was an instant hit, and the four principal singers — Giulia Grisi (Elvira), Giovanni Battista Rubini (Arturo), Antonio Tamburini (Riccardo), and Luigi Lablache (Giorgio) — were so well-matched that, to this day, they are known as the “Puritani Quartet.” On the very first night, “there was an explosion of enthusiasm” which left Bellini “shaking and at times stunned.” Writing about the success of I Puritani in a letter to Santocanale, Rossini noted: “The composer and the singers were called on the stage twice, and I must tell you that such demonstrations are rare in Paris, and only happen if they are truly deserved. My prophesies are fulfilled, even to the extent that they are beyond what I had hoped for …” Queen Marie-Amélie, to whom Bellini dedicated the score, had graced the second performance. Soon after, Bellini was invited by the Queen and King Louis Philippe to the royal palace, and the King made him a Cavalier of the Legion of Honour.
There were so many demands for encores, particularly for the duet “Suoni la tromba,” that Bellini was asked to make a number of cuts to ensure that the opera did not run past the 11:00 p.m. curtain time (set by police orders). Elvira’s ‘mad scene,’ for example, was moved to its current place, since originally it fell flat after the wild enthusiasm that “Suoni la tromba” evoked. Eventually, Bellini agreed to make an alternative version of I Puritani, with Elvira sung by a mezzosoprano, and Riccardo a tenor. As a result, there is no final authoritative text of the opera, and the text is open to interpretation. I Puritani was said to be Queen Victoria’s favorite opera, and indeed it was a quintessential Victorian opera of the Romantic period, with its obligatory “madwoman” scene, its Romantic love story, and its exaltation of traditional values.