Performances of Bellini’s melodrama, “Il Pirata,” at the Teatro alla Scala have, over the years, been few and far between. Originally written for the theatre in 1827, and starring the celebrated soprano, Henriette Méric-Lalande as Imogene and the famous tenor Giovanni Battista Rubini as Gualtiero, it was roundly deemed to be a success, and quickly received two revivals, one in 1830 and the other in 1840. It had, however, to wait a further 118 years, until 1958, before receiving another run, this time starring the incomparable Maria Callas and Franco Corelli.
Now, after another substantial wait, this time of a mere 60 years, “Il Pirata” returns, with Sonya Yoncheva starring in a new production directed by Emilio Sagi and conducted by Riccardo Frizza.
Following in the footsteps of Callas is no easy task, yet the prodigiously talented Yoncheva was not to be found wanting, and turned in a five-star performance. She made an instant impact with her first entrance onto the stage for the scena e cavatina in Act one, scene four, “ Sorgente! è in me dover,” in which she goes to the aid of the shipwrecked pirates. Her richly colored soprano and wonderful technique immediately seized the attention; each line was wonderfully constructed, with an array of dynamic and colorful accents, underpinned by her vocal power and formidable control, and delivered with a strident and passionate intensity which perfectly depicted her emotional state. The cavatina, “Lo sognai ferito, esangue,” in which she dreams of finding Gualtiero once more, showed off the agility and flexibility of her voice as she skipped along the vocal line, incorporating fleeting ornamentations, and intelligently constructed coloratura. Her expressive phrasing was full of subtle details, and again exhibited the wide variety of colors at her disposal. It was an electrifying entrance. Throughout the opera the audience was witness to an expressive and intense vocal display, but what elevated Yoncheva‘s performance to the higher levels was her sense of the dramatic, which enabled her to clothe the character with a greater degree of realism. For Yoncheva’s Imogene is a truly troubled character, torn between the love she has for Gualtiero and the moral duty she feels towards her husband, Ernesto, and her child, overlaid with feelings of fear and pity, loss and guilt, emotions of such power that she descends through a series of traumatic scenes into madness.
Unfortunately however, in the final scene, in which her mind finally succumbs to the severe emotional pressures, the soprano did not maintain the same high standards, her voice starting to fray in the upper register and the vocal lines losing some of their wonderful clarity. Nevertheless, this did little to detract from what was a gripping performance, which up to that point had been simply superb.
Earnest and Determined
Gualtiero, the pirate and Imogene’s ex-lover, was played by Piero Pretti, who also put in a powerful performance. His voice possesses a consistent quality across the range. It is strong, with an attractive brightly colored timbre. His second act aria, “ Tu vedrai la sventuarata,” in which he hopes for Imogene’s forgiveness, was delivered with style and panache, his voice rising and falling in smooth musical arcs, with plenty of embellishment, and a pleasing legato. He was an ardent Gualtiero, earnest and determined and made an excellent partner for Yoncheva’s Imogene. In scene six of Act one there is a wonderfully constructed meeting between the two, starting with “Tu sciagurato! Ah fuggi.” Here, Pretti and Yoncheva’s voices confronted and challenged, intertwined and blended delightfully. The only negative was that, by comparison, Pretti’s voice tended to lack the necessary variations in color.
Not Particularly Successful
It was not, however, a particularly successful evening for Nicola Alaimo in the role of Ernesto, who was too often unable to adequately sustain the vocal line in the upper register. Moreover, it was a problem of which he seemed to be only too aware; at the final curtain call, he did not stop to receive the applause, but quickly retired into the background in order to forestall the inevitable catcalling that the Milanese audience is happy to dish out to any singer who falls short. Yet, at the same time Alaimo’s performance did display quality. He performed well in the ensemble pieces, in which he seemed to possess more confidence. This was most notable with Yoncheva in the duet, “Arresta, Ognor mi fuggi,” in which he confronted his wife about his suspicions of her adulatory with Gualtiero. He possesses a pleasing timbre in the lower and middle registers, and phrases with agility and intelligence allowing him to produce a fairly convincing portrayal of a character, which has limited potential. Almost inevitably, however, this too was overshadowed by the powerful performances of Yoncheva and Pretti. Alaimo’s voice is also surprisingly small for such a large man, and in a house the size of La Scala, meant that it was prone to disappear.
The minor roles were all well-parted. Francesco Pittari, playing the part of Itulbo put in an energetic and convincing performance. In the role of the hermit, and Gaultiero’s ex-tutor, Goffredo, was Riccardo Frassi. He made a pleasing impression, his well-rounded, authoritative bass endowing him with the necessary gravity to convince. Imogene’s lady-in-waiting Adele was played by soprano Marina de Liso, who also acquitted herself well.
Synonymous With High Quality Bel Canto But…
Riccardo Frizza, whose name is becoming synonymous with high quality bel canto performances, conducted the Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala, in a well-paced reading, in which the score’s subtle textures and contrasts were highlighted, at the expense of a more forceful interpretation. His decision meant that he achieved a pleasing balance between all the musical forces, whilst creating the right dramatic tension.
The Coro del Teatro alla Scala had been well drilled by the Maestro del Coro, Bruno Casoni, and put in an excellent performance as pirates, fishermen, Imogene’s ladies-in-waiting and Ernesto’s soldiers and dignitaries.
Emilio Sagi aided by his team of scenographer Daniel Bianco, costume designer Pepa Ojanguren, and lighting designer Albert Faura, created a presentation which, although good in parts, cannot be considered to have been a particularly successful production. Although it was finely focused, with suitably dark atmospheric sets, which efficiently carried the narrative without any distracting features, there was little imagination on display. A moving surface, covered in reflective metal panels, which acted as a ceiling, or tilted backwards to act as a back wall, dominated the set. At times it had the effect of creating an aesthetically pleasing mise-en-scene; for example, in Act one, Imogene and her ladies-in-waiting, dressed in white, crowd onto the stage, with their reflections fragmented in the metal panels above, and a wooded snowscape in the background. It was engaging and a colorful contrast to the darkness that pervaded the set. The final scene, in which a crowd stood watching Ernesto’s tomb while Imogene and Gualtiero played out the drama, was also successful. Generally, however, there was little to admire. Props were kept to a minimum, and usually restricted to non-descript boxes. Moreover, the costumes, mainly based on 19th century designs and dark in color, had a fairly neutral effect.
The choreography was in accord with the production as a whole, that is, good in parts. The crowd scenes in general were well-done, and the opening scene, in which the populace watch the pirates’ ship being wrecked in the storm, was particularly good. Otherwise it was largely a static affair. One awkwardly constructed scene was Ernesto’s meeting with his generals; they were seated in two rows on boxes, opposite each other, at right angels to the audience. Ernesto walked up and down the two rows patting them on their backs. Then with nothing else to do, he did it again – it gave a poor impression. On the other hand, Ernesto’s second act confrontation with Imogene was very well staged; both seated on chairs, facing the audience, but at a distance to each other, it successfully reinforced the impression of a marriage in severe difficulty.
Of course, one of the problems with Bellini’s operas is that they tend to have numerous static interludes, which can have a negative impact on the drama, and it is not always an easy matter to rectify. Many directors have found difficulties in trying to find solutions. Sagi and his team fared no worse than many, and certainly better than some, but overall the production did not fully convince, despite some enjoyable scenes.
Musically, however, this was an excellent production, one in which Sonya Yoncheva displayed her star quality. She was also supported by some excellent performances, most notably from Piero Pretti and the conductor, Riccardo Frizza.