In BLO’s version of I Puritani, a vengeful Riccardo kills Arturo during the last scene as the two happy lovers, Elvira and Arturo, finally reconnect after many trials and tribulations. Arturo dies in Elvira’s arms, and we can only anticipate that the final blow of his death will ultimately unravel her fragile and already strained psyche. The plot of I Puritani meanders back and forth, with the lovers reconnecting four times, making the climactic moment somewhat subdued by our implicit expectation of yet another impediment to the course of their love. The happy ending brought by the unexpected and convenient amnesty of all prisoners, including Arturo, is announced by the sudden arrival of a missive.
The classical Aristotelian model of dramatic structure eschewed such deus ex machina plot devices, considering them to be the subterfuges of lesser dramatists who are unable to provide us with a structurally satisfying and cathartic denouement. During the Romantic era of I Puritani, however, the Aristotelian model gave way to melodramatic plots with multiple climaxes, cliffhangers, and reconciliations. In that way, Romantic plot models, whether in opera or in melodrama, very much paralleled our modern soap-opera plot devices (think of Friends’ Ross and Rachel’s gloriously absurd stop-and-go courtship developing over the span of ten years).
Whether with happy or tragic endings, Romanticism focused on heightened emotions, weaving-in tales of love and redemption through the intricate landscapes of the characters’ dramatically enhanced inner emotions. Throughout the centuries, opera directors responded in various ways to I Puritani’s elaborate melodramatic plot and deus ex machina happy ending. Many, like BLO, chose to kill Arturo at the end, which, in light of everything else that happens in the story, is as psychologically consistent as letting him live. Can we really imagine Elvira and Arturo’s happy marriage?
The two most recent productions in which Riccardo kills Arturo at the end were a 2003 production directed by John Dew that premiered at the Vienna Staatsoper, and Francisco Negrin’s 2009 version of I Puritani directed for the Netherlands Opera. Negrin viewed the libretto as “silly and not making much sense,” and chose to frame the ending as a figment of Elvira’s distressed imagination. At the end, we are left to wonder whether the amnesty really happened or whether Elvira merely imagined it. In John Dew’s version, Riccardo falls to his knees after killing Arturo, tragically realizing what he has just done. Although his rival is dead now, Riccardo too is a broken man: revenge has led him nowhere (as suggested in previous scenes).
For opera to remain a living, breathing genre of dramatic art, the living, contemporary directors must experiment with it as much as their counterparts have done in the past. If they wouldn’t try different approaches and visions, they would deprive us of the most salient pleasure of opera-going experience: deconstructing the various delicious ins and outs of their decisions.