Bass-baritone John Relyea was a sensation as the villain — make that four villains — in Seattle Opera’s 2005 production of Offenbach’s “The Tales of Hoffman.”
Relyea, who enjoys a high-profile international career, earned bravos for his glistening voice, beautiful from the top to the bottom of his range, and his menacing, powerful portrayal. He was named Seattle Opera’s Artist of the Year.
Relyea is back at Seattle Opera, where he opens Saturday night in the company premiere of Bellini’s “I Puritani,” a favorite bel canto opera (beautiful singing) of the Italian repertoire that will test his vocal skills as much as his dramatic ones.
Written in 1835, “The Puritans” is a historical drama set at the time of the English Civil War, the mid-1600s when the forces of Oliver Cromwell — known as the Puritans because they supported a strong Parliament — clashed with the Cavaliers, who were loyal to King Charles I.
Elvira, a touchstone role for sopranos, is an innocent caught up in politically treacherous times who goes mad but regains her sanity — twice — when she thinks the love of her life, Arturo, has left her. Complicating the plot is Riccardo, a rival for Elvira’s love. Giorgio is Elvira’s kindly uncle and Lord Walton her supportive father.
Even with staging to make the most of the swashbuckling swagger of the era, opulent costumes and a castle so big it’s reinforced with steel, staging Bellini’s opera remains a challenge despite the high drama of the times because the story is weak.
As musical drama, however, it’s spectacular and famously hard to cast. “The Puritans” is all about the music, and requires superb singers for the sumptuous score that Bellini wrote for the best singers of his era. The music is lyrical and smooth, with a long line that requires superb breath control and technique, a beautiful tone, vocal agility and stamina. And, in this opera, lots of high notes.
Seattle Opera general director Speight Jenkins devoted years to assembling his singers — two casts for the four principals — among them John Relyea as Giorgio, a role with high-powered duets that he performed in 2006 at New York’s Metropolitan Opera earning praise for his “elegance and dramatic conviction.” A regular at the Met, Relyea made his Seattle debut in 2000 and returns next season in Bartok’s “Bluebeard’s Castle.”
Relyea is a tall young man with a deep, basso speaking voice, a shock of luxuriant dark hair and an easy laugh. Seattle is a good town for opera singers, he said in a recent interview, and he actually likes the weather.
He comes from musical stock: Both parents had singing careers and his father, a noted Canadian baritone, was his first voice teacher. As a teen, Relyea played in a rock band before getting serious about opera. History may be repeating itself as one of Relyea’s own young sons is a budding drummer.
At 36, years from reaching the vocal prime for the bass singer, Relyea’s own voice has deepened as has his repertoire, from the lyric colors of the bel canto to heavier roles such as Wagner. “I’m always surprised as the voice reveals itself,” he said.
And his voice has more clarity these days, thanks to a procedure that sounds scary for an opera singer. Last fall, Relyea had his tonsils removed because of recurring throat infections that filled his head with swollen tissue.
The procedure was safely away from his vocal chords, and basses sing more from the chest than the head anyway. The operation was a success, opening up nature’s own sound box. Fellow singers, who didn’t know about the operation, would comment, “You have more clarity in your sound,” Relyea said.
Seattle’s “Puritani,” which includes a large chorus, is a dream cast, Relyea said. As Arturo, American tenor Lawrence Brownlee “spins out long high notes,” Relyea said.
The charismatic Polish baritone Marius Kwiecien, another Seattle Opera Artist of the Year, performs Riccardo and French soprano Norah Amsellem is Elvira. “I told her, ‘Your top notes remind me of early (Maria) Callas’” Relyea said.
“It’s a sensational production,” he added.