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.