BWW Review: With Meade and PIRATA, Crutchfield's Bel Canto at Caramoor Goes Out with a Bang
Chemistry in an opera performance is a funny thing. It's not always easy to explain why it's there, but you know when it isn't. But when it works, it works--and, boy, the Caramoor Festival's concert staging of Bellini's IL PIRATA on Saturday was on fire, with Angela Meade as the star soprano and Will Crutchfield on the podium. Even the weather cooperated for the most part, aside from a few sprinkles, with only a hint of the heat and humidity that often turn these performances into a steambath.
With PIRATA, Crutchfield ended his 20-year run of championing a largely bel canto repertoire at Caramoor (he's off to a new venture at SUNY Purchase next year, Teatro Nuovo). It was not only a great success for Meade as Imogene--one of those put-upon heroines that are a mainstay of opera seria--but a smashing performance in general, drawing nuanced playing from the Orchestra of St. Luke's, the chorus and other members of the cast.
This is not the first major role Meade has debuted at the Westchester venue, including Norma, which she'll do at the Met this year, but, in this one, she gave us some of her best singing...which is saying something. She took a bit to warm up, but when she did, she sang magnificently, lyrically potent, particularly when it got to the mad scene, showing off her agility and fiery sound. Just as importantly, her dramatic skills were keenly in focus--in turns temperamental and put-upon, but always subtle--and she made the character a flesh-and-blood woman.
Bellini's score--the first of four great operas he produced between 1827 and 1831 that also included I CAPULETI E I MONTECCHI, LA SONNAMBULA and NORMA--is surprisingly potent, starting with a stormy opening scene that Boito might have cribbed for OTELLO. Still, one can't underestimate the success of the libretto by Felice Romani in how well the opera works. (Too bad he and Verdi didn't collaborate again after the early IL GIORNO DI REGNO, considering some of the sub-par libretti the master used for many of his works.)
Hearing PIRATA in a performance this good makes its long lack of favor a puzzlement, and to admire how canny Maria Callas was in plucking it from obscurity for performances at La Scala in 1958 (and for Montserrat Caballe's grand success with it at Carnegie Hall in 1966 ). Their enthusiasm wasn't enough to cement the opera's place in the popular repertoire--with the Met's lackluster production in 2003 seeming to plant a stake in its heart.
Yet, here it was in a semi-staged (Meade called it "traffic control" when I interviewed her) production that let us see and hear what the great work has to offer. Meade, of course, wasn't there alone in offering stellar work: The production was strongly cast from the principals down to the well-trained chorus of the Bel Canto Young Artists, under chorus master Derrick Goff.
Santiago Ballerini, the Argentine tenor well-schooled in bel canto style, did uncommonly well as the title character, the pirate Gualtiero, who has lost Imogene in a forced marriage to save her father. His soaring high notes and sensitive vocalism were a treat. As the third side of the tragic triangle, Imogene's husband Ernesto, bass Harold Wilson made an imposing foe for Gualtiero, his suave voice making the piece's villain somehow charismatic and even a bit sympathetic. As Adele, Imogene's companion, Robyn Marie Lamp's soprano grew more enticing as the evening progressed, while bass-baritone Joseph Beutel did some fine work as the hermit, Goffredo, and tenor Sean Christensen impressed as Gualtiero's lieutenant.
With its long lyric lines and stirring drama, PIRATA deserves a better fate than it has had in recent times. Now that Meade has shown what she can do with the role of Imogene, let's hope the Met gives it another chance.