A season that includes the first ever replay of Maria Callas’s sole live Metropolitan Opera radio broadcast (Lucia di Lammermoor, December 8, 1956) might lead us to wonder whether we are coming into a new age of great bel canto singing. The hype surrounding the beautiful young Russian soprano Anna Netrebko, who is steadily appropriating classic Callas roles (she made her role debuts both in Puritani in this revival and in Bellini’s La Sonnambula in 2006), seems meant to make us believe so.
But despite all the good thoughts, this Puritani left much to be desired. Ms. Netrebko is of course stunning, dramatic, and sexy. She definitely knows how to use these qualities to full effect, even cascading her gorgeous brunette mane into the orchestra pit during Elvira’s mad scene. Unlike a true bel canto soprano, however, her ubiquitous sharp notes and muddled lower register created the impression that she is out of her Fach. For all of her artistry and sheer magnificence in last year’s Don Pasquale and renowned Mozart/Puccini singing, the more demanding Callas signature roles may be out of reach.
Her colleagues scarcely helped. The young tenor Eric Cutler cancelled his scheduled appearance as Arturo and was squalidly replaced by Gregory Kunde. At times barely audible, the rumor at intermission was that he would not finish the evening. But unfortunately for the audience he did. Franco Vassallo made for a wooden, unmemorable Riccardo and Canadian baritone John Relyea’s bout of bronchitis weakened his normally fine voice. Their duet “Suoni la tromba” may not be the most dramatically overwhelming in opera, but their efforts were of little help. Adding Patrick Summers’ stagnant conducting and Ming Cho Lee’s tired, vintage 1976 sets made for an uninspired evening.