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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

  • papopera says:

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

    • La Cieca says:

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

    • Indiana Loiterer III says:

      Well, so much for Il pirata

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

      • m. croche says:

        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 says:

    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 says:

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

    • Mrs Rance says:

      Right on, Quanto.

    • Rowna says:

      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 says:

    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 says:

      Ask and it shall be yours:


      • la vociaccia says:

        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 says:

    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 says:

    Deluded:

  • Constantine A. Papas says:

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

  • Quanto Painy Fakor says:

    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 says:

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

      • Quanto Painy Fakor says:

        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 says:

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

          • Camille says:

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

  • Quanto Painy Fakor says:

    Warming up for the opening!

  • Camille says:

    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 says:

      What do the trembling jaw and mouth mean?

      • manou says:

        Fear of criticism from Parterrians.

      • Camille says:

        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 says:

          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 says:

            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 says:

      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 says:

        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 says:

      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 says:

    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.