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Any opera company worth its salt can give us a pretty good idea about how a standard repertory work is supposed to sound. That’s what they’re in business to do. What it takes to make a production truly newsworthy is a cast and creative team willing to dig deep into that opera, to discover what it could be and not settle for what it already is. That’s not to imply that what, say, Bellini’s I Puritani already is is all that bad—it’s just circumscribed by its 1835 vintage and the idiosyncratic demands of bel canto style. Puritani, currently on the Eisenhower stage in a Washington Opera production, practically defines bel canto tradition. You have the boneheaded plot, the luscious, arching melodies, the cheesy melodrama, the heroine who goes mad (and, in this case, recovers her wits whenever it suits the story), the rollicking ensembles, the chorus that shuffles onstage to state the obvious, and, of course, the death-defying coloratura vocal writing. The eye-rolling potential here is tremendous, but there are enough pretty things to keep the ears entertained.

And, as is so often the case, Puritani has the potential to be much more than a stack of twittering arias and hoary stage devices. Granted, the story isn’t promising. Set in Plymouth, England, during the English Civil War, the plot involves the imminent marriage of Stuart-sympathizing cavalier Arturo and Elvira, the daughter of a powerful Puritan governor. On their wedding day, Arturo leaves Elvira at the altar to smuggle the imprisoned Queen Enrichetta from the Puritans’ clutches. This abandonment drives Elvira to the madness alluded to earlier and leaves Arturo at the mercy of Elvira’s spurned suitor, Riccardo. Just when things look black for our lovers, the Stuarts are defeated and the Puritans extend an amnesty to political prisoners. Everyone shakes hands and goes back to what he or she was doing.

It’s the usual formula—writing for callow tenor, snarling baritone, and trained canary. Or is it? For one thing, there’s some intriguing crisis-of-conscience stuff going on in Riccardo’s duet with Elvira’s make-nice uncle, Giorgio. Then, of course, disguising the queen in Elvira’s wedding veil provides some nifty fodder for psychosexual confusion on Arturo’s part. (Indeed, his decision to leave Elvira without a word couldn’t be more freighted with heartbreak and dread.) And for all the she’s- crazy/no-she’s-not/yes-she-is nonsense Elvira treks through, her ravings are chillingly dissociative, even self-annihilating, the text conveying both romantic ache and clinical dysfunction.

Bellini’s score, like Carlo Pepoli’s libretto, creates and then transcends formulas. Yes, you can see the two-part arias coming a mile away. The chorus joins in the dialogue in a pat, unison call and response. Quaintly stodgy recitative, more often than not, anticipates Gilbert and Sullivan. But much of the music also foreshadows Verdi and shows Bellini expanding the bel canto orchestra beyond the glorified guitar it was so often treated as. Rhythms change on a dime, to exhilarating effect. Ensembles are masterfully scored. (The opening offstage quartet is an ethereal inspiration.) Memorable, character-appropriate melodies lie thick on the ground, and ornaments serve not only the singers’ egos but also their specific emotional needs.

Conductor Christopher Larkin knows how this score works. He draws elegant phrasing from the horns, and the winds sing sweetly and with vivid character. He keeps the music flowing, goosing it when it threatens to relax into sleepy reverie, supporting his singers without indulging them. Larkin’s work sets the tone for a really fresh and compelling Puritani.

The onstage goings-on, alas, rarely follow suit. WashOp’s staging is a co-production with Opera Royal de Wallonie, Opera de Marseille, and Opera d’Avignon et des Pays de Vaucluse (whew!). Set designer Isabelle Pariot aims for something fresh but gets only as far as something less moldy. The cartoonish rendering of spears and shields and military trumpets splayed across the show’s curtain promises an iconoclastic visual production. But the sets turn out to be a zigzagging array of ramps faced with inlaid brick and stone, suggesting nothing so much as an aerial shot of Georgetown. The ramps necessitate a lot of goofy tramp-tramp-tramping for the chorus, and singers wind up playing intimate scenes with each other on sloping, disjointed levels. Charles Roubaud’s direction is not what anyone would call nuanced—it’s really little more than the standard-issue strutting and posing and grimacing—but that set does him no favors.

The cast seems a game lot, a group well enough served by this adequate production but worthy of something more inspired. John Osborn looks more engaged as Arturo than he has sometimes been in WashOp productions, and his slender-but-juicy tenor is perfectly weighted for bel canto. (He pops off some thrilling high notes over the course of the evening.) As Riccardo, Jorge Lagunes uses his warm, liquid baritone to terrific effect in this repertoire—he’d be a pleasure to hear as Enrico in Lucia—and his mellifluous way with phrasing suggests a musically cogent mind and a lived-in sense of style. His restrained (limited?) acting is welcome in a villain’s role ripe for moustache-twirling excess. Daniel Sumegi has the physical and vocal authority for the part of Elvira’s Uncle Giorgio, though his booming bass sounds a little thick and fuzzy, as if he’d just swallowed a pair of mittens.

Coming to Elvira, we hit an interesting dilemma. Lynette Tapia is a perky, pint-sized soprano with a perky, pint-sized voice. It’s hard to imagine a singer who could better suggest Elvira’s youth, fresh-faced appeal, and vulnerability. Dazzling in her coloratura work, she negotiates runs with pinpoint accuracy, knows how to float high notes to ravishing effect, and conveys the emotional subtext of all those ornaments. She’s not a bad actress, either.

So what’s wrong with this picture? Well, for starters, Elvira comes off here more like a moody high school kid than a tragic heroine. This is Plymouth 90210, and the wedding smacks of junior prom. None of which is Tapia’s fault: Her voice just feels too light and girlish for the part, as if all Elvira were missing were a feather duster or a shepherd’s staff. (Here’s where an Anna Netrebko, with her blend of dewiness and tonal luster, might provide the best of all worlds.)

Sopranos hate to hear it, but once again we’ve been spoiled by Maria Callas. When Callas revived the rarely done Puritani in the ’50s, and recorded it in her prime, she imprinted the part of Elvira with such heartache, probing insight, and vocal light-and-shade—such substance—that smaller, bell-like voices (like Tapia’s) have seemed insubstantial next to hers. Joan Sutherland and Montserrat Caballe were notable Elviras in subsequent decades, and if they lacked Callas’ dark-night-of-the-soul quality, they still had the vocal weight. Even Beverly Sills and Ruth Ann Swenson, with their lighter vocal equipment, have suggested grown-up longing rather than soubrette cutes.

Of course, none of these divas have been able to belie their own middle age, and it’s a delight to watch attractive young singers like Tapia and Osborn portray attractive young lovers like Elvira and Arturo. (Their natural onstage chemistry shouldn’t be surprising: The two are married in real life. They’re sort of a Roberto Alagna/Angela Gheorghiu lite—with less attitude, I hope.) Anyway, all this scribbling is moot, depending on which performance you catch—WashOp is presenting two completely separate Puritani casts on alternating nights. The constants will be Larkin’s vital conducting and a production that’s certainly up to the opera as it stands but never really hints at the musical drama waiting to emerge. CP