Of all Bellini’s
last four operas that followed the success of I Capuleti
e I Montecchi in Florence in March 1830, Beatrice di
Tenda is the most neglected in performance and on record.
The work followed on from the triumph of Norma which
had opened the Carnival Season at La Scala on 26 December
1831. With Giuditta Pasta as the eponymous priestess it was
performed thirty nine times in the season to massive acclaim.
Whilst in Milan, Bellini and Pasta attended a performance
of the ballet Beatrice di Tenda at La Scala.
After Milan Bellini
went to Palermo, his hometown where performances of his operas
were given in his honour. In the autumn he signed a contract
for a new opera to be presented at La Fenice and to follow
performances of Norma, which was to open the season.
Both the new opera and Norma would feature Pasta. The
first subject suggested by the librettist Felice Romani did
not appeal to Bellini and rather late in the day he persuaded
his colleague to change the subject to Beatrice di Tenda.
Romani was already committed to libretti for no fewer than
five other composers and the verses were so slow in coming
that Bellini and the impresario took legal action to speed
up the poet. This didn’t help what had previously been an
excellent relationship. Although delivery of the verses speeded
up, their laggardly arrival only just allowed the opera to
be squeezed in before the conclusion of the season and this
was after revision of the libretto by Armando Gatto. The opera
was first performed at the Teatro La Fenice, Venice on 16
March 1833. It was not well received, audience and critics
viewing some of the music as a re-hash of Norma. Despite
these views Beatrice di Tenda was soon performed in
Milan and Naples. It reached London in 1836 and New York in
1844. In all those venues it was well received. Beatrice
di Tenda may not have the flowing Bellinean cantilena
of Norma, or its successor and the composer’s final
opera I Puritani, but it does have all the composer’s
attributes and is a vehicle for bel-canto singing.
The action takes
place at Binasco Castle, near Milan in 1418. Agnese, one of
Beatrice’s ladies-in-waiting is in love with Orombello. She
is loved by Filippo, Duke of Milan, Beatrice’s husband. Agnese
helps Filipo to get rid of his wife, Beatrice, of whom he
has tired, by falsely accusing her of being the lover of Orombello.
Under torture Orombello, who does love Beatrice, makes a false
confession, which he later retracts. Filippo orders the execution
of Beatrice and Orombello but hesitates to sign the death
warrant after a plea for mercy by the now repentant Agnese.
The arrival of Beatrice’s supporters demanding her release
hardens him and he signs the warrant. The opera ends as Beatrice
is led away to her death.
On record Joan
Sutherland’s 1966 recording (Decca 433 706-2) has dominated
the catalogue with rivals, except for Gruberova on her Nightingale
label (NC070560-2), having only a transient life. This present
recording was made shortly after a series of concert performances.
Its strengths are in the vibrant and dramatic conducting of
Fabio Luisi and the contribution of the chorus and orchestra
of the Deutschen Oper Berlin. But just as the initial run
of the work in Venice in 1831 depended on Giuditta Pasta,
so will this recording be judged on the strengths of Lucia
Aliberti as Beatrice. Her lyric coloratura has not the fullness
of tone of Sutherland or her virtuosity in florid passages.
She does score over ‘La Stupenda’ in slightly better diction
but with the soloists set well behind the orchestras and chorus
and with a resonant bloom around the voices that is a marginal
issue. Her characterisation is good in Beatrice’s act 1 cavatina
with chorus, ‘Respirio io qui’ (CD 1 trs. 10-14) as
she laments herself as a broken flower; likewise in her final
prayer (CD 2 trs.26-27). Significantly Lucia Aliberti cannot
always sustain a legato line to the extent that Gruberova
can. Where the Nightingale recording scores over Sutherland’s
and over this issue is in the presence of Vesselina Kasarova
as Agnese with her rich-toned and vibrant characterisation.
Camille Capasso’s high lyric mezzo is adequate but does not
erase memories of Kasarova or Veasey with Sutherland.
as Orombello is no rival for the young Pavarotti for Italianate
squilla, but he sings with clear open tone and good diction
(CD 1 trs. 24-26). After something of a rough start the real
solo vocal power in this performance comes with the singing
and characterisation of Paola Gavanelli as Filippo. There
are times when his incisive clear diction and excellent portrayal
of Filippo’s cruel and self-serving character reminds me of
the young Tito Gobbi. That comparison might be gilding the
lily a little too much, but Gavanelli’s portrayal is superior
to recorded rivals and together with the orchestra, chorus
and conductor is the main strength of this issue.
The booklet has
photographs of the singers and artist profiles to 1993. There
is an essay on the opera and a clear synopsis in German, French
and English. The libretto is given in full but with a translation
in German only.
Robert J Farr