Bea in the bonnet

Everyone who revives Bellini’s Beatrice di Tenda, as the Collegiate Chorale did at Carnegie Hall on Wednesday night, calls the piece an “overlooked masterpiece.” It has certainly been overlooked, while Norma, Sonnambula and Puritani go from strength to strength. Beatrice has not been staged in New York in living memory, and this was only its fourth concert performance here (third at Carnegie) in the last hundred years.  

Any mature Bellini score (from the last ten, say, of his thirty-four years) is bound to be something special, even if less than a hit. Beatrice has an awkward plot but several lovely tunes, a lively courtroom confrontation (how many prima donnas get to cross-examine the tenor?) and the famous prayer trio, “Angiol di pace.” But none of the solo arias are well known; none of them have the haunting moodiness of “O quante volte” from Capuleti, the irresistible charm of “Son vergin vezzosa” from Puritani, or the pity and terror of the mad scene from Pirata.

Composed for Giuditta Pasta, the originator of Sonnambula and Norma, Beatrice plays on the trope of the innocent queen (or rather, in this case, duchess) accused of adultery by her bored husband. It’s a surefire device: Shakespeare’s Henry VIII centered about Queen Catherine’s high-spirited courtroom defense, for generations a favorite with mature actresses—Saint-Säens made it the focal point of his operatic Henry VIII, such a thrill at Bard last summer. In Anna Bolena, Donizetti gave the good stuff to Queen Catherine’s immediate successor with dull Henry.

Created three years after Anna, with the same librettist and for the same diva, Beatrice’s resemblance to Bolena did Bellini no favors. His heroine lacks Bolena’s depths of personality and predicament. She married a king for ambition, foreswearing love, making her own bed, and we pity her even as she smothers there—the plot and our sympathies help the music produce dramatic excitement. Beatrice is a chillier lady, loving neither husband (Duke Filippo) nor aspirant lover (Orombello) and not especially friendly to her jealous rival, Agnese. She’s admirable but not likeable. Is she at least pretty? Who cares? Bellini did not find it a simple matter to make this stiff, self-righteous female musically attractive; what composer of passionate opera would?

What is most intriguing about this score may be the development of Bellini’s thematic technique. Beatrice is the work that followed Norma, where many of the melodies follow a pattern of similar progressions, so that, almost without our noticing it, much of the music feels like a set of “variations,” placing us in a particular world. “Casta diva” sticks out from the rest because the composer intended to make the reader sit up for the entrance of the prima donna.

In Beatrice, several “melodic cells” (as later musicologists might have called them) are braided through the score, from prelude to conclusion, evolving and keeping us focused on the network of confrontations that produce the plot. Bellini’s extension of a few themes through an opera drew Wagner’s admiration and emulation; any lover of Bellini will want to know Beatrice and how it works in performance. Therefore we were all delighted to have it back (after 24 years).

Such admiration may not be enough to bring Beatrice lasting favor with the public, though the opera was popular enough for a generation after its premiere in 1833. In more recent times, the heroine’s steadfast character and opportunities for vocal effulgence have attracted such singers as Sutherland, Gencer, Anderson and Gruberova.

Angela Meade was the Collegiate Chorale’s titular draw, a soprano who has attracted notice in Norma, Anna Bolena, Ernani and Vespri Siciliani and has won a certain following. On the evidence, she was not up to Beatrice—her technique is insufficiently solid to carry two and a half hours of drama that depends on fleshing out what is on the page. Meade’s voice is beautiful but unevenly so, and bel canto opera prized evenness as much as it did flexibility.

She sang wonderful phrases, some broad, some an exquisite filament of sound, but at times the voice seemed hollow, merely “coating” the line instead of filling it. She often seemed to be going for a reading of the printed score rather than playing the role having thought it through. Meade has impressed me before with her acting and her musicianship, notably in her Anna Bolena at the Met and her Norma at Caramoor, but her Beatrice was a stab in the dark, not a finished article.

Beatrice must carry the night, but her colleagues, on whom somewhat less depended, include three juicy roles, and the other Collegiate soloists were closer to the requisite level. Mezzo Jamie Barton already sings with such authority that she is being spoken of as the new Dolora Zajick. Zajick, however, a highly experienced singer, has been able to lighten her voice when singing bel canto roles like Adalgisa and Favorita, where power to cut through an orchestra is not called for. Barton, a dynamo with an endearingly plangent sound for the yearning of Agnese’s not-quite-off-stage love song, seemed uninterested in reining it back during duets with less mighty singers. Still: This is a voice and an artist ready to take on stages as large as they build them.

Michael Spyres, already in demand in a wide variety of roles of the lyric tenor and heroic-lyric repertory—Raoul, Arnold, Masaniello—brought a coolly beautiful grace to Orombello’s music, making us wish there was more of it. Although he never seemed under any strain, Spyres, originally trained as a baritone, sang the role with a dark quality that made one suspect Arturo (in Puritani) and Elvino (in Sonnambula) would not suit him as well as, say, Pollione (in Norma). But other tenors with baritonal backgrounds (Bergonzi, Domingo) have used bel canto as a springboard to long and wide-ranging careers.

Nicholas Pallesen, in contrast, sang cruel Duke Filippo rather on the light side, easier on the top than on the bottom. His attractive baritone always gave pleasure, though you had to ignore the nasty things he was actually saying. Nicholas Houhoulis sang his small role attractively.

The Collegiate Chorale has my lasting gratitude for reviving such unjustly neglected scores as Moïse et Pharaon, Alceste and La Fiamma. Beatrice appealed to them because the chorus plays a considerable part in the tale, egging Duke Filippo on in his tyrannical plans, spying on Orombello, deploring Beatrice’s torture, condemning her to death in any case (just the lowest voices), and demanding one last embrace from her as she goes to execution (just the ladies, but this could take some time even so).

James Bagwell led them in a meticulous performance, careful to enunciate each syllable clearly—at the expense of tempo and drama. Single syllables often failed to become words. Musicians from the American Symphony Orchestra played Bellini’s typically light accompaniment; he preferred never to cover the dramatic action, centering it on the solo voice. This is why Lilli Lehmann said Norma was tougher than the three Brünnhildes: In Bellini, you’re out there, with no warm orchestral underbrush for the singer to hide.

Bagwell seemed not always fully synchronized with his soloists—his podium stood a little behind them, and there were one or two false entrances. This is, unhappily, not the only reason one suspected there had not been enough rehearsal time. Worst of all, “Angiol di pace,” the loveliest, Belliniest melody in the opera and the moment when Misses Meade and Barton and Mr. Spyres seemed to be at peak form, was inexplicably rushed.

This melody should flow elegiacally, with a spiritual removal and reserve—it is the last prayer of people on the verge of execution, you know—but as Bagwell led it, it might have been the town band on market day. There was little applause after the trio; many of those present might not registered it had come and gone. This gorgeous number, so gorgeously sung, should have been allowed to linger. Hell, bel canto of this quality should have been encored. What else had we come for?

Photo: Dario Acosta.