When Bellini first sat down to write an opera for La Fenice in Venice with the renowned librettist Felice Romani in 1833, it was to have been based on a story by Alexandre Dumas the elder about Queen Christina of Sweden.
But the tale just didn't capture Bellini's imagination. And when he attended a ballet based on the life of Beatrice di Tenda, a Milanese aristocrat, with Giuditta Pasta, who had starred in Donizetti's Anna Bolena, both Bellini and Pasta felt it was the ideal vehicle for her. So after considerable persuasion from the composer, Romani turned his attention to Beatrice di Tenda.
Although it was a failure initially, the opera toured around all the major European opera houses and was performed in more recent times by Mirella Freni and Joan Sutherland (the latter recording it to great acclaim).
In a performance of far-reaching historical importance, the Chelsea Opera Group got to the work's emotional heart in this one-off concert presentation, building on their previous achievements in the bel canto repertoire. Although there were inevitable problems of timing and intonation occasionally, these were of little importance because every single musician and singer was wholly committed to presenting Bellini at his best. Indeed, I cannot imagine a better case being made for a reappraisal of the piece, which would surely provide a rewarding experience in the opera house.
The real-life tale of Beatrice is sharply dramatic. In the early fifteenth century Beatrice, Countess of Tenda, was married to Facino Cane, lord of vast domains in Milan and beyond. As he lay dying, Facino instructed Beatrice to take Filippo Visconti as her new husband (Facino had served the influential Visconti family for many years), using Facino's property and armies as dowry. But after a while Filippo tired of her, finding her rather too old for him, and took Agnese del Maino, one of Beatrice's ladies-in-waiting, as his mistress. However, Agnese was in love with a nobleman called Orombello, while the latter was enamoured of Beatrice - who nevertheless remained faithful to her second husband and suspected nothing. In frustration, Filippo decided to rid himself of her and accused her of adultery and of trying to overthrow him. Beatrice was tried and condemned to death in 1418.
Bellini found the story distastefully violent, and Romani shaped certain scenes very carefully to give Filippo's character more psychological breadth in particular. I was struck in this performance by Filippo's aria in Act 2, when a small arioso in the scena tells us that he's haunted by thoughts of his impending condemnation and murder of Beatrice. The aria itself also shows his conflicting emotions, rather than portraying him as a two-dimensional bad guy. It's very exciting, therefore, when he decides to go through with his plan on hearing from some courtiers that the people are trying to overthrow him, just as he was on the brink of forgiving her.
The two highpoints of the opera, however, are scenes involving Beatrice: first, when she is being tried in court, and second, her execution scene at the end. Both of these are extensive and describe the drama in 'real time', thereby pointing towards the kind of intensity common in the mature Verdi and the verismo composers. In the part of Beatrice, Nelly Miricioiu added another role to her extensive repertoire and acquitted herself with dignity. Although she struggled occasionally at the top of her range, she remains an utterly compelling performer and is still capable of great vocal beauty and flexibility. Put simply, she knows how to sell a song, and in consequence was the star of this show.
Stephen Gadd was a suitably strong Filippo, demonstrating an Italianate line and providing all the passion that this brand of melodrama requires. As Orombello, Don Bernardini showed emotional commitment, focussing his tone very carefully and bringing lyricism to the big set pieces. Anne Mason portrayed the psychological shifts of the character of Agnese with refinement, while young tenor Paul O'Neill promises to become a major interpreter of the Italian school on the basis of his brief but vital contributions as Rizzardo and Anichino.
Conductor Brad Cohen returned to lead the forces of the COG's chorus and orchestra, all of whom are amateur volunteers but are never amateurish in their devotion to their important work in reviving little-known operas by well-known composers. The success of the performance was very much to Cohen's credit: he inspired the performers with great professionalism and they responded by giving of their all.
On 30 June 2007, the Chelsea Opera Group returns to Cadogan Hall for Bizet's La jolie fille de Perth. Not to be missed.