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 review). 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 applause.
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
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.