Monday, August 28, 2017

Stuck Between a Count and a Pirate

Bellini’s Il Pirata
Bel Canto at Caramoor
Venetian Theater
July 8, 2017

Imogene and the pirate who washed back into her life
Photo credit: Gabe Palacio
For the twentieth and final year of the celebrated Bel Canto at Caramoor series, Will Crutchfield and his team brought us Bellini’s Il Pirata. The orchestra and extraordinary cast sounded so wonderful that it is a yearly appointment that will be sorely missed. The opera here will continue. Handel’s Atalanta is already on the books for next year we’re told. So the picnics in this bucolic wonderland will continue, but Crutchfield’s intellectually stimulating curatorial efforts will be hard to replace.

Over the years that we have followed his work with the summer festival at Caramoor we have learned a lot about the evolution of Rossini’scompositional style due to his work with a castrato, the influence of Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia on Verdi’s Rigoletto and so much more.

The woman who lies at the center of it all
Photo credit: Gabe Palacio
Bellini’s opera may be called Il Pirata but the drama all lies in the heroine. It is the story of her impossible love, which comes down to a matter of principle. In order to save her father from prison, she consented to a loveless marriage with Ernesto, the Count of Caldora. The man she once loved, the eponymous pirate Gualtiero, has been absent for some time.

Until one day he and his pirates wash ashore near her castle in Sicily.

The open and honest emotions of a woman who is sure of herself
Photo credit: Gabe Palacio
What is striking is how forthcoming she is about the whole intersection of circumstances not only with Gualtiero but also with her husband Ernesto. When confronted about her sudden emotional distance from him in Act II, she very frankly says “Yeah, I love him but in the way one might love a dead man.” It’s impossible for her now. Since when did such adult composure of emotion and mind pass for romance? Incredible! “L’amo come uom sepolto,” she says to her husband at this crucial point.

The tragedy is all hers. But that doesn’t mean that Ernesto takes this news like a big boy. Oh no, he gets all fired up in a conniption fit of jealousy and perhaps most surprisingly of all, things don’t end well for him.

Some husbands are more understanding of adult feelings than others
Photo credit: Gabe Palacio
Act II opens strong and moving with this marital confrontation. The singing was exceptional, as we have come to expect from Crutchfield and his crew at Caramoor where four years ago we discovered Donizetti’s gem of an opera Lucrezia Borgia along with star soprano of night, Angela Meade. And what a night it was.

With Lucrezia in mind, I braced myself for a hearty duel between man and wife, a fight to the death. But surprisingly no such face off materialized in this second act opener. They launch into their duet and just when you expect explosive bel canto fireworks, Imogene refrains from going for the jugular (as Lucrezia did) and instead opts for adult frankness. Unbelievable! She embodies all the values of maturity, honesty, sincerity. The opera should bear her name rather than the poor wayward pirate. This is all about her, Imogene, a woman of principle.

Santiago Ballerini is a rising star
Photo credit: Gabe Palacio
Soprano Robyn Marie Lamp as Imogene’s companion, Adele, came out high and bold and strong. She buoyed Angela Meade’s sound beautifully.

Bass Harold Wilson as the “villain” Duke of Caldora, Ernesto, was a commanding deep-chested presence who was at once also redemptively fresh. It begged the question of just how bad could this guy be. Though he blackmailed his wife into marrying him, musically he wasn’t necessarily vilified through and through. As a result, dramatically it leaves something to be desired, no matter how many moments it presents musically, which may explain its lukewarm presence in the canon.

Tenor Santiago Ballerini as the pirate Gualteir0 really shined. His instrument has a brightness that sparkles. Most remarkably of all in tonight’s performance, he had a delicacy in the tender moments that were precious without being cloying. We have the singer, as well as conductor Will Crutchfield to thank for that, I reckon.

Vying for pole position at the emotional core of the opera
Photo credit: Gabe Palacio
The pirate was no doubt right there at the emotional core of the show, but it was without a doubt soprano Angela Meade who took the night. As the tragic heroine Imogene, she showcased her flexible, emotionally moving instrument. She was a force of nature as I expected her to be. She was chesty and agile. She has a big expansive sound especially when devouring Bellini’s meaty, long musical lines. Her madness scene was a real treat. Sole, ti veli was a climax worthy of the distinction. She ate up the silent moments with a heartbreaking emotional insanity. With her husband gone and her old flame condemned to death and her father long dead, so little remains in the balance. At this point, this is really no question as to whether or not the tragedy is all hers.

An extraordinary cast coupled with a breathtaking performance from the orchestra made this a night to be remembered. Mr. Crutchfield, we will miss you at Caramoor.

– Lui & Lei

Onwards and upwards with Will Crutchfield, but not forgotten
Photo credit: Gabe Palacio

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