Romantic bel canto, the English Civil War and the Troubles might seem an unlikely recipe for operatic success. But the pitting of Roundhead against Cavalier in Bellini’s final masterpiece, I puritani, holds compelling modern-day sectarian parallels for director, Annilese Miskimmon.
In her courageous new production for Welsh National Opera’s ‘madness’ season, wider ideological conflict underpins personal crisis in 1970s Belfast: when the Protestant Elvira believes herself abandoned by her Catholic lover, Arturo, she goes insane, hallucinating the action in flashback to the age of Cromwell via the Orange Order of Arturo’s rival, Riccardo.
The scene goes from austere meeting hall to dark interior space and back; both are full of shadows, portending a shocking final twist - and contrasting dramatically with Bellini’s sublime music, conducted with superb sensitivity by Carlo Rizzi. David Kempster (Riccardo) and Wojtek Gierlach (Giorgio) spearheaded a stunning supporting cast which, together with a WNO Chorus and Orchestra on splendid form, allowed tenor Barry Banks’s passionate Arturo to soar. But the discovery of the night was soprano Rosa Feola, who spun Elvira’s long, winding melodies into gold. Her coloratura was gorgeous - and heartbreaking - with no histrionics but a myriad, delicate inflections. Quite simply, a star in the making.