The opera worlds current big buzz is over tenor Juan Diego Florez performance in the Mets production of Donizettis The Daughter of the Regiment; his aria "Ah, mes amis," which he encored on opening night in a "historic" moment ("historic" meaning that no one had sung an encore at the Met since aaaaall the way back in 1994); and the nine high Cs that earned him that honor. (Actually, what the aria calls for is a pair of adjacent Cssame note, different syllablein a phrase repeated four times, with a bonus C at the end.)Well, on Saturday, the opening night of Seattle Operas production of Bellinis I puritani, tenor Lawrence Brownlee managed a rather nice high F, a full fourth higher. A fourth is the interval between the first two notes of, for example, Wagners Wedding March. To get an idea of Brownlees feat as compared to Florez, sing "Here" on a note at the top of your range. OK, now sing "comes the bride."The audience jumped. Even more exciting and unexpected, though, was Seattle Operas ability to make something absorbingan actual storyout of this rather thin and convention-bound opera (something the Met couldnt manage with its Puritani, despite the presence of glamour-diva Anna Netrebko, in its movie simulcast last season). The setting is the English Civil War, the conflict is between Stuarts and Cromwellians-not that it matters. Change a few proper names and the girl-loses-boy-goes-nuts plot wouldnt make an atom less sense among any other pair of feuding factions-Montagues and Capulets, Hutus and Tutsis, Microsoft and Yahoo employees.When Brownlees character, Arturo, is obliged-on his wedding day-to run off and save the incognito Queen Henrietta, his abandoned fiancee Elvira snaps. The high-wire act of her two mad scenes-three for those sopranos, like SOs Norah Amsellem, who dont seem to be fully healed when reunited with Arturo in act 3-is the main justification for reviving the work, and Amsellem more than made it all worth the effort. She floats some very pretty high notes and also sounds secure singing them full out, though her singing does have some clarity issues, with occasional smearing and scooping in her legato phrases and fioritura. Despite that, she acts the holy hell out of the part-she really does seem to be on some other mental plane, or planet, than the rest of the characters, in an edge-dancing, risk-taking performance of 200% commitment.Brownlees singing is damn near impeccable, full of both heart and precision. His ability to make his singing seem utterly effortless-his notes sound like theyre simply loosed rather than delivered-is something Ive heard only one other SO singer manage at that level, and thats Jane Eaglen. As Riccardo, the quasi-villain whos the other point of the triangle, Mariusz Kwiecien only has one major solo turn, so he made the most of it, with artistry and breath control up to the challenge of the composers endlessly unfurling melodies-just when you think hes bringing a phrase to a cadence, Bellini finds some clever way to extend it. The fourth principal, John Relyea, brought a bass of great splendor and warmth to the role of Elviras uncle.Peter J. Halls full-on storybook costumes were handsome, as was Robert A. Dahlstroms scaffoldy unit set, though the incongruity of these two elements remained distracting throughout. Actually, the sets unabashed utilitarianism made a pretty good metaphor for the plot-a rack on which to hang all those fancy-dress genre pieces, the love duets and military marches, which make bel canto opera so dramatically ludicrous and so fun nevertheless. GAVIN BORCHERT7:30 p.m. Wed. & Sat., plus Fri., May 16; 2 p.m. Sun. Ends May 17.
Wednesdays, Saturdays, 7:30 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m.; Fri., May 16, 7:30 p.m. Starts: May 3. Continues through May 17, 2008