My dear friend Eleanor was over yesterday, and while we were eating cookies and drinking tea in the backyard we talked about I Puritani. If you follow me on Twitter/Facebook you will know that I recently discovered that the opera Norma is more or less a rough draft of I Puritani with a couple of really awesome arias and choruses thrown in, and as we were listening to Norma as well the conversation naturally drifted that way.
“It’s too bad,” Eleanor said, “that the first time we see Elvira she’s throwing a tantrum, and then after that she’s crazy.”
Which is true. Since I have all this deep insight to share about this beautiful but (at least story-wise) somewhat ridiculous opera, let me proceed to summarize/literarily analyze something none of you have ever read or had any knowledge of.
It won’t be as funny as my open letter to Rita Mae Brown, but it will be as entertaining as I can make it.
So the first thing that happens in I Puritani (after the overture and a male chorus about war) is that Riccardo comes out and sings an aria about how miserable he is. Elvira’s father SPECIFICALLY TOLD HIM that he could marry her, and now he’s changed his mind and is letting Arturo marry her instead, all because Elvira loves Arturo instead of him and this is TOTALLY UNFAIR AND HE SHOULD JUST GO KILL HIMSELF NOW. I don’t know why anyone would want to marry someone who hates them, but it’s an opera. Deal with it. Anyway, Bruno (who is sort of a dramatic Dogsbody and carries all sorts of unwelcome information throughout the opera) comes out and tells him to suck it up and live for his country and for God, and Riccardo, while acknowledging that those are good things, is still really pissed off. After another chorus, Elvira has a duet with her uncle Giorgio where he’s like, “Hey, why are you so sad?” and she’s like “I’m not going to tell you,” and then he says “OK, but guess what? You’re getting married today!” and she says, “WHAT!!!!” and throws a complete shit fit, saying that she’ll die but never, ever in a million years get married. After letting her go on for a bit, Giorgio says, “But I haven’t even told you who you’re marrying! It’s Arturo!” and after much “Really?” “Yes, really!” “Are you shitting me?” back and forth they hear the heralds announcing Arturo and all of the sudden she’s so happy she could die.
Follow me so far? Elvira is established as the love object – everyone is always talking about how beautiful and innocent she is, but all she’s done so far is throw a tantrum and then get super excited and happy. I think Bellini and his librettist were going for “natural and emotional” in a sort of Rousseau-ian sense but they ended up with “completely self-absorbed”. Oh well.
So anyway, Arturo arrives and sings her a beautiful love song, then discovers that the queen is being held captive, about to be executed, and resolves to rescue her, thus skipping his own wedding. Then Elvira runs on stage with her wedding veil, sings a really difficult aria (I should know), playfully draping her wedding veil over the condemned queen’s head. I know, kind of grim, right? Not that she knows what’s going on. Elvira is painfully wrapped up in herself, and seems more or less incapable of grasping that she is living in the middle of a civil war and there are more pressing things going on than her love life. The most charitable reading of her is that she, while being really hot, is a) pretty mentally unstable to begin with and b) not that smart. Anyway. She runs off without her veil and Arturo, seizing the chance to get the queen out of there unseen (since she’s wearing the veil – again, it’s an opera. Don’t ask questions), escapes, but only after trading cadenzas with Riccardo, who lets him escape because then he has a fighting chance of getting Elvira back. It’s a really awesome scene, actually.
So Elvira is left at the altar and promptly goes off her rocker. What’s interesting about it is that she does what all broken-hearted sixteen-year-old girls do when they get dumped: she alternates between reliving every moment of the relationship and being really, really miserable – except she does everything very, very literally. Instead of just re-imagining all of those moments like I did when I was sixteen and dumped, she really thinks she sees Arturo there with her. I imagined it that he was simultaneously right there and really far away, in that weird dream-logic way. And the misery is sure real, of course. There’s nothing like getting your heart broken for the first time.
Anyway, after a couple of mad scenes Elvira disappears from the stage while Giorgio tries to guilt-trip Riccardo into saving Arturo from execution (assuming they catch Arturo, of course – he’s still a fugitive). “You know,” he says, “if you let Arturo die, then Elvira will too, and her ghost will totally haunt you.” Riccardo clearly feels bad about the whole affair, it having backfired so badly, but they agree that for the sake of their cause they’ll kill Arturo if they have to and damn the consequences.
Then, of course, having dropped the queen off in France, Arturo comes back like the noble moron he is. He sings for a while in the garden, and Elvira comes out. He hides behind a bush while she sings about his voice torturing her (thinking it’s another hallucination), then jumps out and gives her the shock of her life. She’s apparently in a lucid moment, so they sing a beautiful love duet until he hears the soldiers coming and says, “Holy shit! We have to get out of here!” She, of course, thinks he’s trying to leave her again – remember what I said about her not being that smart? – and calls for the guards, who arrest him and only put off executing him because he has another particularly beautiful aria to sing.*
So when Elvira hears the words “CONDEMNED TO DEATH!” she says “WHAAAAAT??????” and is suddenly not crazy again. Also, she is really, really sorry. For which I am glad, because it is the first time in the entire opera that she shows any concern for anyone other than herself. She begs Arturo’s forgiveness, which he of course gives her. More than I would do. I’m not an unreasonable person to be in a relationship with, but I think “You got me condemned to death!” trumps “You left me at the altar!” especially when #2 comes with a pretty good excuse -“Yeah, but I was saving the queen from being killed!” No, he is still very, very protective and loving towards her even though he really, really should not be.
Then just as the men advance on him with their swords a messenger appears with a note from Cromwell. The war is over and all criminals are pardoned! Then the opera ends happily and very, very quickly. One assumes that Elvira and Arturo get married afterwards, though one wonders if their marriage turned out very well, and one concludes that it probably didn’t, given her extreme selfishness and his extreme idealism.
Anyway. One of the big dramatic flaws in this opera is Elvira’s character. Most of the opera is about her and her misery. But unfortunately she is only shown acting either selfish or crazy, so it’s hard to sympathize with her…unless you can believe in the relationship between her and Arturo. Which works if you assume that they have seen very little of each other, and are so madly in love that they haven’t had the opportunity to learn of the other’s flaws. Also if you assume Elvira is a teenager, which she would be, and Arturo ~ 15 years older than her. Like I said, I don’t think their marriage turns out very well. But in the end it’s a story about love triumphing over impossible odds, which is a very satisfying conclusion. All the difficulties can happen after the curtain goes down.
PG Wodehouse – one of my favourite authors – once said about writing that there were two kinds: either making a musical comedy of life or getting right to the heart of things and not giving a damn, and he chose the former**. I Puritani rests firmly in the first camp as well. If it didn’t, it would start around the place that it ends, and plunge you right into the nastiness that a marriage between a clueless young girl and a noble but fanatical warrior would be. But just like Wodehouse’s best writing, it leaves you with a simultaneous feeling of satisfaction and longing, if only a longing for a world that was that simple.
*In the production I was just in, when the guards showed up the tenor playing Arturo turned to me with this little “Why?” gesture, and I glared at him and turned away. It was just perfect.
**Can’t find the quote online anywhere.