Thursday February 22 11:43 am

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Lyric's "I Puritani" - Review by Jeffrey Leibham

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Forget the old-fashioned libretto by Carlo Pepoli. Instead, focus on the majestic music and thrilling voices that encompass this piece. American tenor Lawrence Brownlee is superb as Lord Arturo Talbot, the Royalist during the English Civil War of 1650 who risks his life and love to save his captured queen. Brownlee, who has recently triumphed in this role in Zurich, Seattle and Copenhagen as well as at The Metropolitan Opera, is confident and comfortable as Arturo. Here is an artist so obviously deserving of all of the awards and acclaim recently bestowed upon him. His Act One entrance is majestic as his rich, golden tenor rings out purely. He completely controls all of Act Three. Brownlee brings such evident joy to his portrayal of Arturo, with a naturally charming delivery. His animated performance and stellar vocalization are astounding, even in the upper reaches of his range. He makes it all look and sound effortless.

Matching him perfectly is the celebrated Russian soprano Albina Shagimuratova as Elvira Walton, a Puritan who is in love with Arturo. Loyal Lyric patrons will remember Shagimuratova from her title role in last season's "Lucia di Lammermoor." As Elvira, she stretches her "mad" scene over the course of all three of the acts. Her silvery soprano floats and melds beautifully with Brownlee's controlled tenor. She trills and displays just the right florid technique required for Bellini's demanding score. Some of her inflections and phrasing were revelatory. What a delight it was to witness both Brownlee and Shagimuratova together in Act Three. Without doubt this Arturo and Elvira are undeniably in love, the chemistry and admiration so strong between the two stars.

Rounding out the remainder of the quartet are the Romanian bass Adrian Sampetrean as Sir Giorgio Walton, Elvira's uncle, and American baritone Anthony Clark Evans as Sir Riccardo Forth, leader of Cromwell's forces and the betrothed suitor of Elvira who has been spurned. Both gentlemen deliver solid performances, particularly in the captivating and concentrated Act Two in which they share the stage with each other and Elvira alone.

Conductor Enrique Mazzola illustrates why he is one of the foremost interpreters of the Italian bel canto style. Tempo may have felt a bit unsteady in the opening act, but that may also have something to do with the languid pace of the structure (three separate scenes playing out on three distinctly different set pieces). Also, the percussion seemed to be a bit too loud at times, particularly in the third act.

Director Eric Einhorn has made some curious decisions, most notably in some stiff and awkward blocking in the more intimate scenes. Having Elvira lay prone across a desk in the great hall of the fortress or Arturo slump over on his side at the conclusion of a dramatic aria while leaning against a fountain in Act Three just seems illogical, as it does nothing for character development. However, he does offer some nice touches when Elvira boldly plants a kiss on an unsuspecting rival or the subtle grandeur of Elvira's "mad" scene when she slowly turns her head to face the audience from half way up a grand staircase. Ming Cho Lee's sets and Peter J. Hall's costumes, both owned by the Metropolitan Opera and created in the 1970's are still ravishing. Lighting Designer Chris Maravich bathes everything in such a perfect light that you would swear that you are looking at a painting by van Dyck.

If you have never had a chance to see "I Puritani" on stage before, rush to get your tickets to this production. If you miss out, who knows when you'll get a chance to see it again? You don't want to have to wait another 25 years.

“I Puritani” runs through February 28th at the Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive, Chicago. Best parking option: The Poetry Garage, 201 West Madison, $12 in advance at www.thepoetrygarage.com. Valet parking is also available - $30.

“I Puritani” is presented in three acts. Running time is 3 hours, 35 minutes, including two intermissions. Remaining performances are February 28th at 2:00 pm; February 13th, 16th and 24th at 7:30 pm. Tickets start at $49. FYI (312) 827-5600 or www.lyricopera.org/Puritani.