For many years, the excellent Collegiate Chorale and their frequent collaborators, the American Symphony Orchestra, have done admirable work in performing operatic rarities that would not otherwise be heard in New York City. Operaphiles wait eagerly for their annual offerings, and this year, we were treated to an intermittently enjoyable, but ultimately disappointing performance of Bellini's ninth opera Beatrice di Tenda. Often touted as the Sicilian composer's "forgotten masterpiece", Beatrice is full of gorgeous melodies and opportunities for expert singers to show off their bel canto skills. Sadly, it seems likely that a good portion of the audience left the performance unconvinced of the considerable beauty and power of Bellini's creation. Not heard in Carnegie Hall since Eve Queler and her Opera Orchestra of New York gave a concert performance in 1988 (featuring June Anderson), Beatrice fell rather flat this time around.
Premiered in 1833, Beatrice was Bellini's final opera to be mounted in Italy. Shortly after its premiere in Venice, the composer followed the contemporary fashion and decamped to Paris where he created I puritani and then died tragically young at 33. As with his Norma and La sonnambula, Bellini composed the starring soprano role in Beatrice as a vehicle for the great prima donna Giuditta Pasta. As such, it is full of impressive vocal challenges, including a multitude of long-lined cantabile phrases and forcefully demanding, emotional cabalettas. While composing, Bellini faced stiff opposition from his librettist, Felice Romani, on a number of counts, but most especially because the poet felt that the plot for Beatrice was too similar to that for Donizetti's sensational success, Anna Bolena. Indeed, Romani seems to have been prescient, since detractors have often cited this very issue in explaining the relative obscurity of Bellini's opera. The composer himself felt differently, and famously remarked that he thought Beatrice 'not unworthy of her sisters [Norma and Amina]'.
The plot involves a standard-issue love quadrangle, and while it may lack urgency throughout most of its two acts, there are still plenty of opportunities for confrontations between characters: several unconventional duets, a trio, a quartet, and concerted ensembles combined with substantial contributions from the chorus mean that Beatrice is hardly a succession of stock arias. In fact, Bellini was quite adventuresome in pushing up against the operatic conventions of his time. Only the soprano heroine has what might be considered a conventional vocal profile, with her two double aria-cabaletta combinations, and even these have interesting choral interjections and unexpected harmonic shifts.
Unfortunately, listeners at Carnegie Hall who may have been unfamiliar with the score (likely most of those in attendance) were only presented with bits and pieces of Bellini's original intentions. Though is it tempting to cut bel canto operas for both purposes of scale and helping the singers with endurance, only the most judicious cuts will preserve a sense of the musical form and arc the composer originally had in mind. The Collegiate Chorale – perhaps owing to a schedule which included a gala dinner after the performance – mercilessly hacked Bellini's score down to a distorted remnant of its formerly expansive grandeur. By my estimate, somewhere between thirty and forty-five minutes of music were cut. Worse than the loss of music itself, was the manner in which the cuts were made, often creating frustratingly jarring harmonic juxtapositions.
As anyone who loves bel canto opera knows very well, cuts in the score can be partially forgiven – or at least reluctantly tolerated – when the singing is exceptional. (For instance, please listen to any live Callas recording from the 50's when rampant cuts were commonplace). Alas, this was not to be for this performance, despite the continued press hype surrounding the young soprano Angela Meade. Much more so than for Anna Bolena, a successful performance of Bellini's opera hinges on having a strong, charismatic, technically adept soprano in the title role. Giuditta Pasta must have had prodigious and wide-ranging gifts both vocally and as an actress, for Bellini's music requires phenomenal breath control in order to sustain the long arcs of melody, as well as strength in coloratura, embellishment, and declamation of text. As a celebrated winner of the Met auditions, Angela Meade offers mostly solid technique, but little in the way of interpretive insight or personal flair. Her voice has continued to grow in breadth and penetrating power over the last several years, but she has a tendency to push through the middle voice and especially the upper passagio. The result is that, much of the time, her tone has no well-defined core of resonance, and her high register is increasingly disconnected from the rest of the voice. Relying too often on pianissimo high notes, she seems to be incapable of expressing emotion through her singing. The standard hallmarks of bel canto style (messa di voce, tapering of phrases, coloring of words, etc.) were absent from her performance. Other recent interpreters, such as June Anderson, Mariella Devia, and especially Edita Gruberova, each managed to put her own personal stamp on the role, all while executing phenomenal technical feats within Bellini's vocal lines. Meade doesn't come close to the standards set by her elder predecessors.
Mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton has a thrilling voice. She was miscast as Agnese (a role more suited to a 'seconda soprano' than a mezzo), but handled most of it very well. After beginning tentatively with the difficult lyrical entrance scene (sung off-stage), she warmed impressively to the challenges set forth by the composer and displayed a remarkably full, burnished sound and rock-solid technique. She was the only singer who occasionally threw caution to the wind and sang with a sense of abandon appropriate to the Romanticism inherent in Romani's libretto. Though it tended to create some sense of imbalance among the principals, Barton produced significantly more power, volume, and charisma than Meade – easily covering the latter whenever they sang in unison. Tenor Michael Spyres showed good potential, and was the only member of the cast to pronounce the language decently and attempt to actually color his words. His voice seems to have a low center of gravity, meaning he is able to generate a beautiful baritonal low register despite having easy access to the highest notes as well. The sheer beauty and solidity of his singing made me wish his role were larger.
The second most important role in the opera, after the eponymous heroine, is the baritone, Filippo – Beatrice's accusing, abusive husband. Composed in the bel canto tradition, but with a proto-Verdian slant, Filippo's music requires both delicacy and heft, combined with secure legato and an authoritative interpretation. Newcomer Nicholas Pallesen handled his assignment with total commitment and a good deal of flair. At this stage of his career, his voice is perhaps a size too small for the role, and he needs more seasoning as a performer. Nevertheless, his energy and dynamic vocalism were impressive.
Although I have thoroughly enjoyed James Bagwell and his Collegiate Chorale in the past, this performance didn't find them on best form. The chorus sang with impressive unity, but offered nothing in the way of Italianate coloring or textual élan. Words were chopped according to rhythm rather than fitted to Bellini's phrases. Additionally, they only skimmed the very surface of the meanings and emotions behind Romani's texts – a shame as the chorus is such a vital component of the overall sound picture in this opera. Bagwell conducted a perfunctory reading of the score – almost as if he was sight-reading. Listening to any one of the available recordings of Beatrice would have significantly enlightened his foursquare, thoroughly unidiomatic reading of Bellini's music. He missed dozens of opportunities to enhance the drama and help smooth out the damage done by the cuts, but was clearly rudderless in the sea of bel canto convention. The entire enterprise seemed under-rehearsed, so perhaps this was one cause of the less than optimal results. It should be noted that much of the audience applauded fervently at the conclusion – in particular for Meade, who received the loudest reception of the evening. I sincerely hope that this fine organization will continue stretching themselves and offer more bel canto in future seasons. Even with the significant flaws, it was wonderful to hear Bellini's score, and for that, I am sincerely thankful.
Photos: Erin Baiano
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