An opera about the Puritans? As improbable as that sounds, such a work premiered on this day, January 25, 1835 in Paris.
The opera, I Puritani, by Vincenzo Bellini, was set in England, against the backdrop of the English civil war of the 1640s that divided the nation between the largely Puritan supporters of Parliament under Oliver Cromwell (the Roundheads) and the Anglican and Catholic Royalists faithful to the Stuart monarchy (the Cavaliers). When the music begins, King Charles has already had his head whacked off. Queen Henrietta is a prisoner in a fortress at Plymouth.
Elvira, daughter of the Puritan commander of the fortress, is betrothed to Richard, a Puritan soldier. But she is moonstruck with Arthur Talbot, an ardent Royalist and convinces her father to allow her to marry whom she wishes. Arthur is welcomed into the fortress as Elvira's bridegroom. Discovering Queen Henrietta's captivity, he abandons Elvira at the altar, spiriting the queen out under disguise of Elvira's wedding veil. Richard allows Arthur to escape, believing this clears the way for him to claim Elvira.
Elvira thinks she has been abandoned for another woman and loses her mind. Arthur is condemned to die if captured. Elvira wanders the woods, singing of happier days.
Although closely hunted, Arthur returns to the scene of his late exploit, hoping to meet Elvira and prove that he never betrayed her. They meet, and Elvira's joy restores her sanity briefly. However, madness returns. Convinced that Arthur means to abandon her again, she calls the guards. Led by Richard, they seize Arthur and he is condemned to immediate death.
Just when all seems lost, a messenger arrives, announcing that Cromwell has defeated the Royalists and issued a general pardon to supporters of the king. Arthur is reprieved. Elvira recovers her reason and is reconciled with Arthur.
Although the music is superb, composer Vincenzo Bellini completely lost sight of faith. To a true Puritan, turning to God in a crisis would have been as natural as breathing. Elvira responds like a pagan woman without knowledge of the divine.
Bellini's Puritans were simply a handy post for the librettist to hang his arias on.
- Downes, Olin. The Lure of Music. Harper and Brothers, 1918. Source of the image.
- Grout, Donald Jay. A History of Western Music. New York: W. W. Norton, 1960; esp at p. 553.
- Lang, Paul Henry. Music in Western Civilization. New York: W. W. Norton, 1941; esp p 838ff.
- Program notes from internet sites.
- Various encyclopedia articles.
Last updated May, 2007.