- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The Washington Concert Opera opened its 2007-08 season with a mesmerizing performance of Vincenzo Bellini’s “I puritani” at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium Sunday evening. What a delight this small ensemble has become under the baton of Artistic Director Antony Walker.

It’s routine to belittle the creaky plot and instant happy ending of “I puritani” (“The Puritans”). But, as with Mozart’s “Magic Flute,” opera lovers have learned to ignore the plotline and enjoy the sublime music of Bellini’s final opera. He died tragically at the age of 34, just months after the 1835 premiere of “I puritani” in Paris — eerily similar to Mozart’s death at age 35, not long after his “Magic Flute” opened successfully in Vienna in 1791.

“I puritani” unfolds during Thomas Cromwell’s ascendancy in England, as Cavaliers supporting King Charles I fight a losing battle with Cromwell’s Puritan Roundheads. Cavalier Lord Arturo Talbot falls in love with a young Puritan woman, Elvira, winning her hand at the expense of his Puritan rival, the soldier Riccardo.

Just before their wedding, Arturo disappears on a secret mission to save former Queen Enrichetta, leaving the jilted Elvira at the altar. She flips out, big time, leading to not one, but two famous mad scenes.

Elvira is a spectacular role for a young soprano, and Sarah Coburn made the most of it Sunday night. Though slight of build, she can turbocharge her sweetly lyrical instrument to near-Wagnerian dimensions.

Her phrasing and diction were picture-perfect in this exquisite performance, particularly in her second mad scene, which is loaded with complex vocal figures and trills, none of which daunted her in the least.

Equally gifted is tenor Lawrence Brownlee in the role of Arturo. His vocal skills are incomparable, a good thing in an opera requiring almost inhuman challenges of the lead tenor, including the ability to cleanly achieve an F above high C. Mr. Brownlee nailed his note with authority. His descent from this pinnacle faltered briefly, however, likely because of a dry throat — sometimes a problem for opera singers when the seasons begin to shift.

The lower male voices tend to get less attention than sopranos and tenors. Not so here because of the incredible talents of veteran bass David Pittsinger (Giorgio, Elvira’s devoted uncle) and baritone Stephen Powell (Riccardo, Arturo’s rival.)

Both sang with great passion and dignity in their respective solo turns, and their rousing Act 2 call to battle had half the audience ready to stand up and enlist.

In smaller roles, mezzo-soprano Magdalena Wor (Enrichetta) excelled with her richly burnished instrument, and bass David Langan (Lord Valton) and tenor Patrick Toomey (Sir Bruno) were fine in brief solo appearances.

Under maestro Walker’s baton, the chorus work was richly satisfying, as was WCO’s large, well-rehearsed orchestra. An occasional tempo mishap with the offstage chorus opening Act 1 and some harsh horn work in Act 3 were the only negatives worth reporting in this otherwise definitive performance of Bellini’s final masterpiece.

***1/2

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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