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Puritan Love: Bellini's 'I Puritani'

Given opera's reputation for melodramatic passion and lust-inspired violence, the opera house would seem an unlikely place for a story about dedicated Puritan believers. But that's exactly what we find at the heart of Vincenzo Bellini's final opera, I Puritani.

It's a love story set during the violent conflict between the Royalists and the Parliamentarians, led by the Puritan Oliver Cromwell, during the English Civil War in the mid-17th century. And despite the piety of its main characters, Bellini was determined that his drama should have a vivid, emotional impact. During the opera's development, Bellini grew frustrated with the librettist, Carlo Pepoli, telling him that the opera "must draw tears, inspire terror and make people die, through singing" -- and suggested that Pepoli should carve those ideas in his head.

I Puritani premiered in Paris in 1835, just months before Bellini's death. But unlike the final operas of many other great composers, it's not a contemplative drama, reflecting the thoughtful perspective of an aging artist. Bellini died of intestinal inflammation when he was just 33 years old, at the height of his creative energy.

Bellini had moved from Italy to France in 1833, and after observing the musical scene in Paris, he concluded that while French composers made skillful use of the orchestra, they had "little understanding of real song." So, in writing his first Parisian opera, he may have been teaching a sort of lesson in lyricism. He said that he devoted "indescribable care" care to I Puritani, and the opera features a lengthy string of Bellini's finest numbers.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents a production of I Puritani from the Vienna State Opera. It features a must-hear performance by soprano Désirée Rancatore in the high-flying role of Elvira, a young Puritan woman who falls for a Royalist cavalier, with tenor José Bros as her beloved, Arturo.

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Bruce Scott
Bruce Scott is supervising producer of World of Opera. He also produces NPR's long-running, annual special Chanukah Lights, with Susan Stamberg and Murray Horwitz.