Cher Public

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.

  • papopera

    I can’t see the effeminate and delicate Bellini composing an opera about so much violence, torture and decapitation
    enhanced with pretty tunes.

    • Odd, being effeminate doesn’t seem to stop you from being violently vicious.

      • phoenix


    • Indiana Loiterer III

      Well, so much for Il pirata

      And since when does physical delicacy prevent one from imagining violent emotions and situations?

      • In his youthful days, Poe’s personal appearance was delicate and effeminate, but never sickly or ghastly, and I never saw him in any dress which was not fashionably neat with some approximation to elegance. Indeed, I often wondered how he could contrive to equip himself so handsomely, considering that his pecuniary resources were generally scanty and precarious enough…

        Nevertheless, [Edgar Allan Poe] had faults, and very conspicuous ones too; — but strangely enough, his real faults have been overlooked by his censorious biographers in their anxiety to paint him blacker than he was. He was singularly effeminate in mind and person. His defects of character were such as Pope attributes to the female sex in general, when he makes the singular statement that “most women have no characters at all.” The conduct of Poe was often controlled by whims and impulses, and it was not easy to conjecture how he would act in any given case. He had no steadfast principles, for there was not substantially enough in his mental frame-work to support them, yet under the influence of correct feelings and a sense of propriety, his moral conduct was generally good.

  • Quanto Painy Fakor

    I’d much rather be thought of as the next Simionato, or Christa Ludwig than the next Zajic! In fact, even the next Mignon Dunn would be great. Maybe she’ll fulfill her potential and be the first Jamie Barton -- that would be best.

    • Clita del Toro

      QPF Right. I wouldn’t want to be the next Kojack ! ;+)

      • Quanto Painy Fakor

        Maybe you could be the next Theodora Hanslowe (I love her voice.)

        • messa di voce

          Not since Victoria Livengood . . .

    • Mrs Rance

      Right on, Quanto.

    • Rowna

      Great review La! I love Ms Meade yet I have similar thoughts about her delving into the characters she is singing. But she is so right for these roles, and we don’t often get this quality of voice for the big bel canto roles. Wish I could have been there. I betcha the audience went wild.

  • la vociaccia

    Thank you for giving a measured, objective criticism, not resorting to hyperbole or out-right name calling when you found something negative.

    I am anxious to hear Ms. Barton now.

    • Quanto Painy Fakor

      Ask and it shall be yours:

      • la vociaccia

        Mille grazie! She sounded lovely in the Lakme clip. Thank you for posting the clip from the audition- what was that thing someone on another thread said about Meade? No core to her sound? Yah, whatever helps you sleep at night buddy. I think she’s friggin stellar

  • phoenix

    Wow! That was fast, furious and probably the best yet from Yo -- this is the kind of thorough review you wish you could just press a button and get on demand from any search engine -- if you were interested in a Bellini performance, that is. Was there no opportunity for the much frotted Meade to astound the audience with her embellishments?

  • Quanto Painy Fakor


  • Constantine A. Papas

    Was this meant as an insult or a reminder of what a tenor voice is all about?

  • Quanto Painy Fakor

    More wannabees:
    “To celebrate the opening of the National Opera Center, composers with strong ties to the organization were invited to write a song that celebrates the opening of a new home, the joy of singing or the excitement of new beginnings. These 47 new songs from leading composers, created the OPERA America Songbook”

    • ianw2

      Yeah, composers creating new work. What ‘wannabees’.

      • Quanto Painy Fakor

        I am not condeming the new works project -- not at all. The singers all wannabe and that’s a good thing. Depending on how much they really wannabe, they might just succeed.

        • ianw2

          Ah, okay, I withdraw my snide remark. My snark detector must’ve been overly sensitive today.

          • Camille

            Having a snark detector which is overly sensitive, ianw2, is the sign of a fundamentally true parterrian, ianw2! Chill.

  • Quanto Painy Fakor

    Warming up for the opening!

  • Camille

    Mr. Yohalem, how did you crank this out so quickly? A model of professional equilibrium and reasoned, seasoned criticism, so enjoyable and edifying a read!

    No one has said a word about one thing which I would like to bring out — specifically for the attention of Cocky Kurwenal, too — Miss Meade sings with a trembling jaw and even sometimes with mouth and lips trembling as well. Cocky, thinking that will be significant to you, and as far as I am concerned, ALWAYS a bad sign. This is not about stage performance nerves but a consistent trembling in the face, and an observation from up very close so there was no mistaking it. I do not recall having seen this in the transmission of Ernani.

    Miss Meade does have potential and a pleasant voice but needs to stop pretending to be the heiress to Montserrat Caballé, look in the mirror, learn to love who and what she is, and do something about what she doesn’t like. Those endless diminuendi on high notes begin to pall after a while and, as shown at the climactic notes of the aria finale, are beginning to vitiate what should be the full sounds of those notes.

    Miss Barton was an enjoyable discovery. I look forward to hearing her again, as she brought expressivity that one very much needs in a concert situation. Her duet with Mr. Spyres was the only moment in which I felt the characters were inhabited and the opera came ALIVE! The angelic and elegiac trio at the end went for naught. Guessing they were all getting hungry and wanted to get to their gala dinner??

    Povero Vinnie!

    • DonCarloFanatic

      What do the trembling jaw and mouth mean?

      • manou

        Fear of criticism from Parterrians.

      • Camille

        DonCarloFanatic — it almost always means a tension and gripping at the voice because it is being controlled in an artificial manner. It is consistent with the constant twittery quality of voice she emits. That’s all.

        Sorry you missed the Don Carlos. As it turned out, so did I.

        • Cocky Kurwenal

          Exactly Camille -- it is nearly always a consequence of either insufficient strength in the lower abdominal muscles, or tension somewhere between them and the head that prevents access to them so that they can’t be properly released and used. The knock on effect is an attempt to impose control from the jaw, or neck, or anywhere thereabouts.

          I do wonder if Meade is sort of afraid of her own sound, possibly. Somebody else mentioned that the voice has grown substantially (and become a bit blowsy) and you point out the bad habit of the constant diminuendi up top -- taken with this effort to use the jaw to get it to work makes me think that perhaps it is trying to become a very big spinto and she is not mentally prepared for it. Rather like what happened to Goerke between singing Handel and emerging as a great Elektra. Pure conjecture on my part of course, but plausible, I think. I maintain that coloratura rep, dramatic or otherwise, is wrong for her, and that the voice needs long Verdi lines to ground it and get it properly on the body.

          • Camille

            This is a very good and plausible diagnosis. It does seem that the voice may be going in another direction from the self=imposed belcantista will of the artist.

            And a Norma with that sort of inexpressive plastique is, well, unthinkable. Some Verdi, maybe a Luisa Miller, I don’t know….? A bit more Mozart Countess? We shall all see, and presto!

    • phoenix

      Camille, I remember commenting on the same thing at an Eleanor Steber performance way back when. I was with a friend from the PA-W.VA border who knew La Steber way back when. He whispered back to me that it was really nothing to be too concerned with -- all she needed was a couple of drinks at the intermission and the trembling tick in her jaw would go away.

      • Camille

        Maybe that’s why she drank? I don’t know nor do I care. She was a great singer at her best.
        I’m listening to the last broadcast of Tito, so adieu.

    • la vociaccia

      Camille! Thank you for an honest, thoughtful review. I know how much you had looked forward to this Beatrice and I imagine it was very difficult for you to write those things, so I commend you for being forthright.

      Curious absence of Mr. Spyres from your review…I hope this isn’t bad news…..

  • jd

    I really enjoyed hearing Beatrice di Tenda for the first time — enjoyed the chorus and all the singers, especially Spyres and Meade. Barton is an up and coming mezzo and Pallesen was fine as Filippo although the character has few redeeming qualities! Meade got a tremendous ovation at the end from the CH fans. Meade and Barton look like sisters! I sat in front of Eve Queller who was very friendly at intermission. She reminisced about doing Beatrice in 1988 with June Anderson. All in all a good evening with Bellini.

  • veal seduttore

    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

      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

        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

        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

      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

        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

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

        • Belfagor

          They suffered for their art. And were better for it!

        • armerjacquino

          They suffered terrible internal burns from all the sacro fuoco.

        • MontyNostry

          Just think, Maria could have compared her San Pellegrino to Renata’s Perrier.

          • Clita del Toro

            Or Champagne to a boxed Chianti?

  • messa di voce

    So Meade is officially filth now?

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

    • Camille

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

      • ianw2

        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

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

    • armerjacquino

      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

        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

          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

            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

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

          • Bianca Castafiore

            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

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

  • Quanto Painy Fakor

    Continuing with the manca la diva…

  • arepo

    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

    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

    “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?