An Opera for Voices

GIUSEPPE PENNISI reviews Vincenzo Bellini's rarely-staged 'Il Pirata'


On 5 February 2021, Naples' Teatro San Carlo opened its 2021 season with a rarely performed opera by Vincenzo Bellini: Il Pirata (The Pirate). This opera's productions are rare and far between because of the vocal difficulties of a score tailored to the extraordinary singers of its debut; it is hard to find a tenor and especially a soprano who can cope with the impervious vocalism of the two protagonists.

Il Pirata is the first Bellini opera for the Teatro alla Scala in Milan. There, it had its debut in 1827 to a tremendous success. In the following years, the opera was applauded in Naples, Paris and London thanks to great singers such as Giovanni Battista Rubini, Hénriette Méric-Lalande, Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient and alike. Even though the plot was similar to those of Donizetti's and Verdi's melodramas - a love story between the tenor and the soprano heavily contrasted by the baritone - Il Pirata disappeared from the billboard around 1850. Its revival was in 1935 in Rome to mark the centenary of Bellini's death, but then it received little attention. In 1958, a joint production by Palermo's Teatro Massimo and Milan's La Scala was a major success, even though it was far from a philological edition: Franco Corelli and Maria Callas were the protagonists. The philological revival was in Florence in 1967 with Flaviano Labò and Monterrat Caballé in the main roles. In 2018, La Scala proposed it with Sonya Yoncheva and the new bel canto star Piero Pretti. I remember a good production in Jesi's Teatro Pergolesi in 1984 with Rockwell Blake and Maria Dragoni.

This short performance history is useful to underscore that Il Pirata is an opera for voices. It is set in an improbable fourteenth century Sicily where a Duke (Ernesto) forces a young woman (Imogene) to become his wife even though she is in love with another nobleman (Gualtiero). Gualtiero becomes a pirate, but a tempest washes him and his friends ashore just near the Duke's castle. Imogene and Gualtiero see each other and are back in love but Ernesto condemns his rival to death while Imogene loses all sense of reality in an engrossing madness scene at the end of the opera.

The San Carlo production is a concert version. It can be seen and listened to throughout the month of February at a price of € 4.90. Pricing it, even symbolically, is a good way to assess how many connect to the production. The Teatro San Carlo Orchestra is conducted by Antonino Fogliani and the chorus is prepared by Gea Garatti Ansini. The orchestra is mostly in support of the voices but the chorus has a few important numbers, especially in the second act.

Imogene is sung by the American dramatic coloratura soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, Gualtiero is the Spanish coloratura tenor Celso Albelo and Ernesto is the Italian baritone Luca Salsi.

Sondra Radvanovsky does not perform often in Italy. This production of Il Pirata is her San Carlo debut. I was highly impressed by her in January 2008 when at La Scala she was Roxane in Franco Alfano's Cyrano with Plácido Domingo in the title role. In the sixteen years since that performance, her voice has not lost even a bit of its beauty. Like Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient in the 1830s, Sondra Radvanovsky handles perfectly Wagnerian as well as bel canto roles - a very rare skill. She is impressive for her depth and agility. I felt it from her long and hard entry aria 'Lo sognai ferito, esangue' that Bellini shortened after the debut as he himself acknowledged that it was too impervious for several sopranos at that time too. Her duet with the tenor ('Tu sciagurato, ah fuggi') is both enthralling and a match of skills and abilities between the two protagonists, where Sondra Radvanovsky won over Celso Albelo with her reaching a very high register. Her pinnacle is, of course, the final scene with the dramatic cabaletta 'O il sol ti vela'.

American soprano Sondra Radvanovsky
American soprano Sondra Radvanovsky

This magazine has reviewed Celso Albelo several times in the last fifteen years. He is one of the fine bel canto tenors available. At forty-four years of age, he has somewhat lost the thrill he had in 2010 when I reviewed his Venice performance in L'elisir d'amore - A real surprise, Music & Vision, 3 November 2010. He is quite impressive in his entry aria 'Nel furor delle tempeste' but, as mentioned, in the duet, Sondra Radvanovsky prevails over him.

Spanish tenor Celso Albelo as Gualtiero in Bellini's 'Il Pirata' at Teatro San Carlo in Naples
Spanish tenor Celso Albelo as Gualtiero in Bellini's Il Pirata at Teatro San Carlo in Naples

Luca Salsi is an all round baritone, versatile in Verdi, Giordano, Puccini and Bellini roles. His entry aria 'Sì vincemmo e il pregio sento' is a stern declaration of victory over the pirates. His vocal abilities and skills are fully shown in the second act duet with Sondra Radvanovsky - 'Tu m'apristi in cor ferita' - which becomes a trio when Albelo (as Gualtiero) joins in.

Italian baritone Luca Salsi as Ernesto in Bellini's 'Il Pirata' at Teatro San Carlo in Naples
Italian baritone Luca Salsi as Ernesto in Bellini's Il Pirata at Teatro San Carlo in Naples

Very well worth connecting.

Copyright © 7 February 2021 Giuseppe Pennisi,
Rome, Italy







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