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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.

61 comments

  • veal seduttore says:

    Well, I was at the Beatrice last nite as well and agree entirely with JY’s insightful review. But I was also taken aback at the remarkable lack of involvement of all the singers -- there was no interaction between or among them (yes, I know it was a concert performance, but still -- had they ever met?) and, sad to say, about Angela’s lack of charisma. Not every soprano has to be Anna, Natalie or Patricia (just to mention three live ones) but Meade seems positively uninterested in relating to the audience; she seems to be doing a job. I sensed it at the Met’s Ernani and Bolena but really got it last nite. Thoughts?

    • parpignol says:

      I was holding the conductor very considerably responsible; he was conducting for choral beauty in an opera whose second act is one giant torture scene; there was no sense of red-blooded Italianate passion coming from any of the performers (and they all had their virtues as singers, including Meade), so doesn’t this have to be a matter of under-rehearsal, unfamiliarity with the roles, and uninspired conducting?
      I was thrilled to get to hear the opera anyway, but it felt like there was more passion at Carnegie Hall tonight with Anderszewski playing Bach on the piano. . .

      • Krunoslav says:

        Glad someone else was at Carnegie to hear Piotr A.’s fantastic Bach, one of the least demonstrative yet most impassioned performances I’ve heard in a long time.

      • veal seduttore says:

        Yes -- Bagwell is to be singled out: I doubt he knew the opera before this performance either. But even with a knowledge-less conductor, I can think of dozens of singers who would personalize their roles: No one at Carnegie did in Beatrice, and since it was obviously Angela’s show, she should have gone elsewhere for coaching. I actually have felt the same about her Elvira and Anna as well -- and I believe that singers can learn to delve deeper. Not everyone starts out with Callas’s or Scotto’s or even Gencer’s insights, but some scholarship and feeling for the phrase is learnable.

    • Belfagor says:

      I went on impulse, and completely agree. I love ‘Norma’ and ‘Puritani’ and have long wondered why ‘Beatrice’ is never done. I like going to an opera I don’t know a note of -- it seems that even the big arias don’t figure in recitals.

      Even though I didn’t know the score and didn’t prep, I think a tone-deaf mongoose could tell it had been cut to ribbons in places. I guess the gala dinner was more important. Dull and uninvolving -- no sense of line, phrasing, a general hack through. The conducting was awful -- inept even. I guess being assistant to Botstein accounts for that. It didn’t seem there were any big moments , nothing showed up in relief. The singers seemed to be elsewhere -- the exception, Nicholas Pallesen, with a voice a bit too small, at least seemed to have a pulse. Mind you the tenor and seconda donna roles are very peculiar, they don’t get a chance to shine.

      The piece is deeply problematic- like a standard love intrigue with all the elements assembled in the wrong order. I found I didn’t care for the characters predicaments, though I reserve judgement until I hear a better performance. As for Meade, well the absolute nadir was lungeing for the bottled water and turning her back in between the final cantabile and cabaletta. Really involving! I’d not heard her before, and frankly thought, though she is able to get around, it’s a monochrome sound, most of the coloratura sounded fuzzy, and, as a performance, really uninvolved.

      I think ‘La straniera’ is much more interesting as a score and has more atmosphere, even if its a piece that doesn’t really work.

      • Belfagor says:

        PS -- did anyone devote any inches to the concert performance of ‘Wozzeck’ last week -- a triumphant evening which proved that a concert presentation of an opera can be as cathartic as a fully staged version.

        And quite agree about Anderszewski’s Bach: he really was extraordinary.

      • MontyNostry says:

        What did singers DO before there was bottled water to take on stage with them?

  • messa di voce says:

    So Meade is officially filth now?

    Ian, is the Hongmatmeadatron in the process of self-destruction?

    • Camille says:

      STOP That and right now or you will make ianw2 SOB!!!

      • ianw2 says:

        In the tradition of all monsters, you can’t be really sure they’re destroyed until the final credit reel of the tenth sequel…

        • Gualtier M says:

          Hasn’t it really morphed into the HongMeadeMooreMatron and now looms more fearsome on the horizon?

    • armerjacquino says:

      Hong gets one performance a year, Bianca tears a new one to anyone who mentions Matos, and Meade seems to be dividing opinion. I guess we do have to pension off the HMMT.

      Long live the Moorastyrskyussio!

      • Bianca Castafiore says:

        Why are you invoking my sacred name, you little persnickety pest? Unless you can deal with the consequences, and not run to your mommy crying when your wet nose gets caught where it shouldn’t…

        • armerjacquino says:

          I mentioned you neutrally and factually.

          I asked you politely to drop the playground stuff: it obviously didn’t work. So, you know, grow the fuck up or fuck the fuck off.

          • Bianca Castafiore says:

            What playground stuff? You need to grow a thicker skin or you need to stop sticking your nose where it’s not called. And maybe stop being Cocky’s little sidekick. Otherwise stop crying to mommy when your feelings are hurt, you little crybaby.

          • Nerva Nelli says:

            Armer, best never to tangle with a second-tier Countess Ceprano who served as a comfort woman in the Thirty Years’ War.

          • Bianca Castafiore says:

            Oh you are so funny, Nervosa…

            I enjoy a good joke here and there, but just for the record, I have called you a cleaning lady and a fish monger, but you seem to enjoy calling me a whore all the time. You think you are funny but you are just an old misogynistic queen.

            I’m done with your sorry ass.

          • Nerva Nelli says:

            SOMEONE is experiencing holiday depression! A nasty piece of work…

  • Quanto Painy Fakor says:

    Continuing with the manca la diva…

  • arepo says:

    I too have recognized Meade’s wonderful talent ever since she entered and won the Met Audition Finals several years ago.
    I was excited about her career and even followed her Verdi Requiem in Baltimore, where she was a singular stand-out.
    And of course all the above mentioned ones, but something happened around Ernani time — I noticed a “coolness”, for lack of a better word, and a distancing herself from the depth of her role and was hoping it was just that one particular time but,no — since then I have seen a pattern of the same developing which saddens me because I do love her voice but she is not moving me — and that’s not a good thing.

  • Camille says:

    Leave Vinnie Alone!! PARTERRIAN ALERT!

    Anyone contemplating going to see the new play “GOLDEN AGE” at City Center, about the prima assoluta of I Puritani, one fine day in January 1835, is well advised to instead put on their Callas/DiStefano recording of same and kick back with a Bellini or two.

    Some of the most embarrassing dialogue that has ever been written includes poor Bebe Neuwirth’s (who looked elegantissima as ‘The Malibran’) recitation of a line like this: “I’m NOT a C*NT, I’m a B*TCH”…as Maria Malibran.

    Poor Vinnie! First kicked in the gut with an indifferent Beatrice, and now…kicked in the balls by the maestro of Master Class.

    Euterpe doth weep.

  • Nerva Nelli says:

    “If Mr. Bagwell’s conducting lacked a measure of precision and clarity, he demonstrated sure feeling for the bel canto style, which allows singers freedom to shape their lines…”

    What concert did Tony hear?