Thursday, December 6, 2012

Se amar non puo, rispettami: Beatrice di Tenda

Orombello e Beatrice, Pelagio Palagi, 1845/50
At Beatrice di Tenda's Venetian premiere in 1833, the audience was vociferous in expressing their resentment of what they perceived as a derivative piece, not worth their long wait for a new work by Bellini. Giuditta Pasta, the diva for whom--and at whose instigation--it was written, resorted to dramatically declaiming to the unruly carnival-goers the line intended for the tyrannical baritone: "If you cannot love me, respect me!" The audience was quieted, and the opera survived, although in relative obscurity. At Wednesday's Carnegie Hall performance, by the joint forces of the Collegiate Chorale and the American Symphony Orchestra, the audience was docile, and gave the diva of the evening, Angela Meade, the acclaim she richly deserved. I found it impossible, however, to accord the work itself more than a somewhat reserved respect. Bellini's gift for melody is on fine display, and there are some impressive musical moments, but the parts of the opera, at least on this showing, failed to cohere into a gripping whole, despite the contributions of an accomplished cast.


Pallesen & Meade. Photo (c) Erin Baiano
As in the case of Donizetti's Anna Bolena, Romantic sensibilities were influential in reshaping an excitingly messy chapter of history into a drama that conformed to the conventions of good theater. The duchess Beatrice thus becomes a wronged and virtuous woman, oppressed emotionally, as everyone else is politically, by her husband's tyrannical behavior. Everyone at the court wants an unattainable lover: Duke Filippo (baritone) wants the lady Agnese (mezzo) who wants Orombello (tenor) who wants Beatrice (soprano) who wants to be left alone to cry under trees (or possibly her dead husband, whose spirit she lovingly invokes. There's an excitingly twisted Fellini or Hitchcock staging in there somewhere.) Beatrice is presented as unwaveringly chaste, loyal, and pious, despite the fact that letters detailing her political and amorous machinations have apparently been found in her chambers, and she is incandescently indignant at Agnese and Filippo having read these letters. The chorus of judges condemns her to death (apparently for treason; adultery keeps getting mentioned, but it wasn't tried by secular courts in the fifteenth century, so I was confused. The cuts in the score as performed may have contributed to the muddle.) Beatrice is icy to Orombello even after he has been tortured, and divides her final scenes pretty evenly between cursing her betrayers and praying in the approved fashion of a virtuous heroine. (This seems to call for a Luis Bunuel staging where she has multiple personality disorder, cf. That Obscure Object of Desire.)

Judgment! despair! bel canto! Photo (c) Erin Baiano
Throughout the torturous evolutions of this plot--which "may be too schematically pure," as the program note euphemistically observed--the lack of variety in the orchestration seemed to me to undercut the wide variety of moods which the composer himself calls for. Lovely as the melodies are, I kept wishing they would evolve. Menace indeed is present in strings and brass, but momentum I found lacking. Conductor James Bagwell gave more dynamic variation, especially to the opening scenes, than I'd noticed in some of the recordings I perused, but the American Symphony Orchestra seemed a bit slack, and wanting in precision. The Collegiate Chorale did yeoman's service as the ubiquitous chorus, which comments on the events with eager self-interest, even when not directly involved in them. The chorus sang with admirable engagement, but I wondered whether they might have been short on rehearsal time, as they seemed sometimes scrupulously together and sometimes not quite. The four principals all contributed fine performances. As the ardent Orombello, Michael Spyres displayed consistent vocal strength and bright sound, using good diction and phrasing. Although the character of the besotted courtier is hardly nuanced, Spyres sang with impressive commitment as well as fine technique. Jamie Barton deployed her excitingly rich and full mezzo skillfully as Agnese, and, crucially, had good vocal chemistry with Meade. Nicholas Pallesen sang with good phrasing and fine variation of vocal color as Filippo Maria, and gave his soul-searching aria convincingly. (How this soul-searching is convincingly to be reconciled with the duke's brutality is a separate matter.) Vocally and dramatically, Angela Meade made much of the title role; sad and saintly she might be, but Meade's Beatrice was not spineless. Moreover, the soprano challenged herself vocally to good effect, sustaining the challenges of long phrases and rapid coloratura with aplomb. More animated once Beatrice was forced to defend herself against her accusers, Meade sang with good control. The final scenes of the opera are chock full of dramatic devices, as Beatrice confronts Agnese before being moved by Orombello's pardon to forgive in turn (the resulting trio, "Angiol di pace," was beautifully sung by Barton, Spyres, and Meade.) Once again commanding, the diva begs the chorus to weep on her grave, and then thinks better of her forgiveness in a cabaletta. Meade made the most of this, giving a welcome energy to the conclusion. Still: Beatrice may be an excellent vehicle for vocal virtuosity, but its underdeveloped characters and orchestration (Bellini was rushed during the composition process) make the whole less compelling than its finest parts. It seems unfair to the composer's masterpiece's to bill this as a neglected one.

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