Seattle Opera's "I Puritani" features the outstanding voices of Mariusz Kwiecien, John Relyea and Lawrence Brownlee and plays at McCaw Hall May 3-17, 2008; opera review by Melinda Bargreen.

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Opera Review |

Forget the plot. You’re there for the melodies and the voices.

Bellini’s “I Puritani,” presented for the first time in Seattle, is not exactly a masterpiece of theatrical coherence, with its 17th-century Puritans and Royalists dashing about in quest of love, battles and enemies. But in Seattle Opera’s new production, this lengthy show has what it takes to ignite the audience — which responded to first-rate casting with genuine excitement.

At the end of Saturday’s Act II, when two former Seattle Opera “Artists of the Year” (baritone Mariusz Kwiecien and bass John Relyea) unite on the stage for a stirring duet, emitting record levels of testosterone and rising to spectacular high notes, opera lovers were thinking, “It doesn’t get any better than this.”

The singers’ enormous personal magnetism and swashbuckling vocal style had half the house shouting “Bravo.” And when tenor Lawrence Brownlee (as Arturo) went for a full-voiced, unheard-of high F (above high C) in Act III, the level of excitement rose to disbelief. Most tenors can’t sing that high without inhaling helium first; Brownlee made it sound easy.

Soprano Norah Amsellem, as Elvira — the girl who temporarily goes mad when Arturo deserts her for duty — had the unenviable task of holding her own against three male singers of unusual power.

After a slow start, Amsellem found her way forward, mustering a lovely voice of considerable agility with a lot of security and accuracy above the staff. She’s an effective actress, too, though some gestures are overworked (particularly the tendency to lean forward from the waist in supplication).

The mad scenes would tax any soprano, but Amsellem dealt well with both the vocal and the dramatic challenges.

Kwiecien, who has sung the title role in “Don Giovanni” here, is everything you’d want in a baritone: a sound like velvet, with lots of expressive power and the high notes of a tenor. He’s also one of the production’s most compelling actors, making it easy for the audience to sense his frustration, his thwarted love for Elvira, his malice toward Arturo (whom Elvira loves).

Relyea’s resonant, focused bass has tremendous vocal and expressive range, perfectly suited to his role as the opera’s moral compass, Giorgio (Elvira’s benevolent uncle).

Brownlee, a former Seattle Opera Young Artist who graduated straight to La Scala, Covent Garden and other big international houses, has grown immeasurably every time he appears here. His high tenor, a superb bel canto instrument, now is shaped with great interpretive finesse; he also has grown remarkably as an actor.

Joseph Rawley, Fenlon Lamb and Simeon Esper did very well in supporting roles.

Sunday’s cast was a little less dazzling, but still full of imposing talent: high-flying soprano Eglise Gutiérrez’s appealingly fragile Elvira, Bradley Williams’ passionate and agile Arturo, Morgan Smith’s resonant and menacing Riccardo, and Denis Sedov’s stalwart Giorgio.

Four members of this production — Brownlee, Lamb, Rawley and Smith — are former Seattle Opera Young Artists, a fact that must fill the company with considerable pride. Here is proof positive that this program works: talent that can hold its own in a star-studded production like this “I Puritani.”

The new sets, designed by Seattle’s Robert Dahlstrom, are dominated by a handsome steel castle with lots of curved staircases and walkways, giving the big chorus plenty of scope for action, and drawing the eye down to a smallish raised platform at the base — an awkward site for swordplay, as the singers glanced nervously over their shoulders to avoid stepping over the edge.

Somehow, stage director Linda Brovsky got the cast and chorus into all the right places in the set, providing busy but always motivated action.

The opening of Act II was as full of detail as a Brueghel painting, with Peter J. Hall’s sumptuous period costumes and such details as a couple playing chess off to one side. The orchestra — particularly the horn section — played brilliantly for conductor Edoardo Müller, and Beth Kirchhoff’s chorus sang like a battalion of stars.

Go, if you possibly can. It’s rare to be able to hear “I Puritani” (never before done in Seattle); it’s rarer still to encounter singing and acting of this stellar quality.

Melinda Bargreen: