by Paul J. Pelkonen
The soprano Angela Meade. Photo by Dario Acosta © the artist.On Wednesday night, the Collegiate Chorale overcame a surprisingly early start time (6pm?!) and a misbehaving supertitle screen to deliver their first opera of the season: Vincenzo Bellini's Beatrice di Tenda. Written between the twin peaks of Norma and I puritani this is the dark horse in the composer's canon. First presented in a famous 1961 concert performance with Joan Sutherland and Marilyn Horne, Beatrice hasn't been mounted in New York (in any form) since 1988.
But who are we kidding? The real story hear is Angela Meade, the homegrown bel canto sensation who sang the title role in this underperformed Bellini chestnut, a work that has to struggle against the difficulties of its own libretto in performance. Conductor James Bagwell compounded matters, cutting seventeen minutes from an opera that is already obscure, unfamiliar, and poorly plotted. (It's sort of a rewrite of Anna Bolena without the fussy Tudor setting.)
As Beatrice, Ms. Meade faced the challenge of having no love interest to play against and a husband who was out to have her whacked from the end of the overture. But such obstacles did not faze this inimitable singer, who delivered a stunning performance that focused squarely on the music. Felice Romani's minimal, underwritten libretto forces the singer to develop the character purely through vocal display. Ms. Meade rose readily to the challenge.
That voice! A sweet, silvery sound, it rises to float gracefully above the stave, sending opera lovers into recollections of divas past. Bellini's coloratura land-mines were navigated with apparent ease as Ms. Meade reached for both ends of the stave with dulcet tone. When the explosions of fioratura came, they sent the audience into orbit, misty-eyed with recollection of divas past. The biggest thrill came in the big choral ensemble at the end of Act I. As Beatrice received her (first) death sentence, that huge voice rose majestically over the swell of choristers and cast members in a formidable display of power and breath control.
She was joined by Jamie Barton as Agnese, Beatrice's rival at court and the cause of her downfall. This promising young mezzo-soprano (last heard in this year's Tucker Gala) was almost an opening act, singing a gorgeous offstage romanza before making a grand entrance of her own. The two singers looked almost like a sister act on the stage--in similar concert gowns as they sung together in the opera's closing scenes, their voices intertwining with tender beauty.
Michael Spyres is another one of those young bel canto talents who gets heard in concert settings but not nearly enough on the big stage. Here, he sang Orombello with just the right amount of "push" in his instrument, producing pleasing tone and nailing the ornamentation. There was enough volume to sound heroic, but more importantly the tonal column was beautiful and pure.
In addition to being the cause of her death, Beatrice's husband Filippo is one of this opera's biggest problems. He is a prototype for the early Verdi villains, who seems to have wandered in from a much later opera. The anachronism is complete when this despicable fellow gets beautiful music to sing. Even the Act II monologue (where he condemns his wife to death, forgives her, and then condemns her a second time--whew!) requires lyric singing instead of villainous snarls. Luckily, Nicholas Pallesen (Storch in the City Opera's 2010 Intermezzo) was strong in the role, displaying a flexible instrument and stomping on and off the stage when required.
About those exits and entrances: A concert setting with music stands places the emphasis squarely on the singers and on the musical experience for the audience. Having the cast members clip-clop on and off the stage repeatedly distracting, adding unnecessary sound effect to certain scenes. That, and some balance issues (caused by the orchestra's place behind the singers) are the only real complaints.