RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Vincenzo BELLINI (1801-1835)
Il Pirata - Melodramma in two acts (1827)
Ernesto, Duke of Caldora and Anjou partisan - Ludovic Tézier (baritone);
Imogene, Ernesto’s wife, previously in love with Gualtiero - Carmen Giannattasio
(soprano); Gualtiero, Count of Moltanto, now an Aragonese pirate leader - José
Bros (tenor); Itulbo, companion of Gualtiero - Mark Le Brocq (tenor); Il solitario,
a hermit and former tutor of Gualtiero - Brindley Sherratt (bass), Adele, Imogene’s
chief lady in waiting - Victoria Simmonds (mezzo)
London Philharmonic Orchestra. Geoffrey Mitchell Choir/David Parry
rec. Henry Wood Hall, London, March/April 2010
OPERA RARA ORC45 [3 CDs: 39.02 + 46.49 + 73.37]
Vincenzo Bellini was born in Catania, Sicily, during the night of 2 November
1801. Both his father and grandfather were musicians, the later having settled
in Catania from central Italy. Despite Vincenzo’s early signs of musical
precocity, and the family’s musical lineage, the father was severely opposed
to the son pursuing a musical career. A number of friends, as well as family,
exerted pressure and eventually Bellini’s father relented and Vincenzo
was sent to study at the Real Collegio in Naples in 1819. This was the establishment
where Donizetti, supported by Mayr, had studied a few years earlier. A wealthy
nobleman and the local municipality of Catania supported Bellini’s studies.
Bellini was a diligent student. He also made a lifelong friend of a fellow student
named Florimo with whom he corresponded assiduously throughout his life on all
matters including his music and love affairs. Much of that correspondence is
extant and gives many insights into Bellini’s mental and financial state.
Going to Naples, with a population of five hundred thousand from Catania, with
only thirty-six thousand, must have been a cultural shock for Bellini. So too
must have been the 1820 revolution in Naples which saw the temporary removal
of the King and his reinstatement two months later. Both Bellini and Florimo
were implicated. They were not prosecuted after a confession and on condition
of a very public proclamation of loyalty to King Ferdinand.
Bellini’s second opera, Bianca e Fernando, drew the attention of
Domenico Barbaja, the impresario who had taken Rossini to Naples in 1815. By
this time Barbaja was also the impresario of La Scala, Milan and of the leading
theatre in Vienna. Early in 1827 Barbaja invited Bellini to compose for La Scala.
The young composer left Naples in April 1827 to go to Milan. There he was introduced
to the classically educated Felice Romani, the official librettist of La Scala.
It was Romani with whom he would collaborate in the creation of all his remaining
and greatest operas except his last. He provided around one hundred and twenty
libretti to various composers in the primo ottocento. The composers included
Rossini, Donizetti, Mayr, Mercadante and many others. Bellini also became romantically
entangled with Giuditta Turina the unhappy wife of a rich silk merchant whom
she had married at the age of sixteen on the arrangement of her parents.
Bellini’s third opera, Il pirata, was premiered at La Scala in
October 1827. Enthusiastically received, it was performed fifteen times in the
season, always to full houses. It became Bellini’s first international
success. Despite the presence of the coloratura tenor Rubini, Bellini made a
determined attempt to move away from the Rossinian manner of florid decoration
towards a more dramatic effect. As well as this move there were also more significant,
although subservient, signs of the long-flowing melodies that were to become
the composer’s hallmark.
The action of the story takes place in the 13th century in the vicinity
of the Caldaro Castle, Sicily. Gualtiero, the exiled Count of Montalto is living
as the head of a band of pirates. He returns to find his beloved Imogene has,
in order to save her father’s life, been forced to marry his enemy, Ernesto.
It is Ernesto who discovers the two lovers at a secret rendezvous. A duel follows
and Ernesto is killed. Gualtiero is arrested and condemned to death. When Imogene
discovers this she loses her reason.
I usually await a new release from Opera Rara with eager anticipation. Normally
this is because the release enables me to hear music that is new to me by a
composer whose oeuvre I am generally familiar with. If the anticipation of the
arrival of the review copies of Il Pirata lacked some of the usual tingle
it was because there are two other studio recordings of the opera already available
The first, that from EMI and recorded in Rome in 1970, features the redoubtable
Montserrat Caballé as Imogene (CMS 7 64169 2). The second, a digital
recording conducted by Marcello Viotti and recorded in Berlin in 1994, features
Lucia Aliberti in that role. That latter recording is included in the collection
of all ten of Bellini’s operas issued by the Italian label Dynamic (see
It did not take long listening to this performance before my tingle was back.
The first cause was the outstandingly well-balanced recording quality. By comparison
the EMI Rome recording sounds very dated as well as being rather over-bright
and edgy. The Dynamic issue, recorded in the Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin,
is warm and a touch too reverberant. The second virtue of this Opera Rara issue
is the vibrancy of David Parry’s conducting and the drama he conjures
from Bellini’s creation. These are the qualities which, I suggest, the
composer was striving for in moving away from the Rossinian pattern. To that
vibrancy I add the thrust, involvement and idiomatic quality of the Geoffrey
Mitchell Choir. This is particularly intense in choir’s role as pirates.
They exceed by far their Roman counterparts. Put together, these qualities contribute
an evident overall frisson, too rarely obtained in studio recordings. They are
vital additions to the usual benefits of balance and the absence of intrusive
Bellini, above even his contemporary compatriot bel canto composers,
demands a lot from his singers. The accompanying essay is by Benjamin Walton,
the author of the similar essay in Opera Rara’s recording of Bellini’s
fourth opera, La Straniera (see review).
He recounts how Bellini worked on and with the famous tenor Rubini to get him
to invest more character into his singing (pp 30-32). The music Bellini wrote
for Rubini in this and subsequent operas, particularly in I Puritani,
is our own window on the nature and range of the tenor’s voice. Sometimes
I have found José Bros’s tone rather white and lacking in elegance
of phrase. In this recording the role seems to be more congruent to his bright
flexible lyric tenor. He is expressive and vocally appealing apart from a few
moments of pressure when he exhibits some spread in the voice and badly curdles
one note (CD 3. tr.10). Apart from Gualtiero’s act one scene and cavatina
(CD 1. Trs.3-6), and the act two scene and aria (CD 3. Trs.16-18) Bellini did
not litter the score with solo opportunities for Rubini. His other, no less
demanding contributions, are in duet with Imogene (CD 2. Trs.3-7 and CD 3. Trs.9-10).
Bellini was even sparer in the provision of solo opportunities to his baritone,
the redoubtable Tamburini who sang the role of Ernesto, the husband of Imogene.
For him the composer provided only one solo, the act one aria Si vincemmo
(CD 2. Trs.10-11) where he celebrates victory with his knights whilst regretting,
in the second verse, that Gualtiero escaped his vengeance. This aria is comparable
with the duet with Imogene in act two when Ernesto accuses his wife of hiding
her grief as illness, being an evil mother to their son and a wicked wife who
conceals a blind love for Gualtero (CD 3. Trs.3-7). Ludovic Tézier sings
the part with welcome variety of colour along with well-covered steady tone.
With several small involvements, Victoria Simmonds contributes some lovely well-shaped
phrases and steady impressive tone and characterisation. Likewise Mark Le Brocq
as Itulbo is vocally distinctive and phrases nicely.
Despite all the virtues set out for this issue outlined above, the overall quality
of any performance of Bellini’s Il Pirata opera stands or falls
by that of the singer of Imogene. Created by the diva Henriette Méric-Lalande,
who also launched the leading soprano roles in four of Bellini’s operas,
her qualities met the composer’s demands in a way that others, including
Rubini’s wife, did not. This is described in the booklet (p.36 et seq).
In more recent times the role has attracted Callas as well as Caballé.
As represented by this recording Carmen Giannattasio can stand alongside those
great divas. She is more of the dramatic school of Callas rather than the elegiac
bel canto of Caballé. Her warm dramatic voice is full of varieties
of colour and expression. She has no curdled notes whilst lacking the absolute
clarity of diction of the Spanish singer who, by comparison on her dated recording
sounds thin-toned. Carmen Giannattasio’s act one scene and cavatina (CD
1. Trs.7-10) with its poignant tones contrasts well with her rendering of the
famous mad scene (CD 3 Trs. 20-23). Throughout she brings good characterisation
and variety of tonal colour as well as phrasing alongside vocal flexibility.
Her performance here matches that which received widespread approbation in Opera
Rara’s recording of Rossini’s Ermione (see review).
I look forward, with eager anticipation, to hearing her performance in the forthcoming
Opera Rara recording of Donizetti’s highly dramatic final written opera,
Caterina Cornaro. This was completed as the tertiary syphilis he carried
began its inevitable final progression. It was staged in January 1844 at the
San Carlo, Naples. After a reprise at Parma the following year it vanished until
it returned to Naples in 1972 with Leyla Gencer. I have heard a pirate recording
and the music should fit Giannattasio’s voice and skills well.
Benjamin Walton’s long essay (pp. 9-46) in the accompanying booklet of
this issue is informative, albeit overdoing the background of the literary source
of the libretto somewhat. The article and a synopsis are given in English and
French with a full libretto and translation into the former only.
Recorded over two years ago, this recording of Il Pirata carries the
imprimatur of the financial support given by the Peter Moores Foundation.
No longer benefiting from that support, Opera Rara has to husband its resources
and recordings with care and look for funds elsewhere. They are currently seeking
financial help from all bel canto lovers for a forthcoming recording of Donizetti’s
rarely heard Belisario, premieredthe year after the debut of Maria
Stuarda in Milan and Lucia di Lammermoor in Naples. It is further
fruit of the composer’s highly creative period. This is to be recorded
in London in autumn 2012 and will cost in the region of £150,000. It will
follow a recording of the composer’s opéra-comique Rita,written
in 1841 but not staged until 1860 and for which funds are also sought. Both
works will also be conducted by Sir Mark Elder but with the latter recorded
in Manchester with the Hallé Orchestra in early September 2012. It will
feature Manchester-trained English coloratura tenor Barry Banks alongside baritone
Christopher Maltman and Katarina Karnéus, the Stockholm-born and London-trained
winner of the Cardiff Prize in 1995. Details of both recordings and how you
can help fund them can be obtained via e-mail from email@example.com
September 2012 will also see the release of an earlier recording of Rossini’s
twelfth opera Aureliano in Palmira (1815). It has been rarely heard since
except in so far as the composer plagiarised some of his own music, not least
the overture which appears in little modified form in Elisabetta Regina d’Inghilterra
(1815) and Il Barbiere di Siviglia, the following year. An exciting year
ahead for bel canto enthusiasts!
Robert J Farr
This dramatic performance takes this version well ahead of the dated competition.