Opéra de Paris 2023-24 Review: Beatrice di Tenda

By João Marcos Copertino
(Photo: Franck Ferville)

Unfortunately, I could not attend the opening night of Paris Opera’s premiere of “Beatrice di Tenda.” I even tried to emulate the experience of an opening night: I avoided, as much as I could, reading the reviews. But, before I could stop them, a few friends had stressed how negative most reviews were. After watching the opera, I can say, without further ado, that maybe some critics have no heart. “Beatrice” has major flaws—as big as the Grand Canyon—, but call me old-fashioned: I am always pleased to listen to such an exquisitely well-sung performance.

Let’s be honest, “Beatrice” has its musical and scenic merits, but there is a reason why it has not seen the stage of Paris Opera until 2024: it is not the greatest masterpiece. The opera is part of that subgenre of bel canto operas where silvering women fall from grace, and their decay showcases political abuses. The female sacrifice, as in “Anna Bolena,” works almost as a vindication of unfairness; the opportunity to sing is their compensation for their martyrdom, and they walk towards death without melancholy. The loss of their heads means that they will not have to shed any more tears. “Beatrice,” however, does not have the same dramatic strength, and even in the hands of inspiring performers, some moments have a certain melatonin effect that is hard to circumvent.

Another problem is the vocal demands: the leading role was written for none other than the great Giuditta Pasta, whose voice travels silently in every performance of “Norma.” Peter Sellars’s staging of the opera is by far the worst thing he has done in his brilliant career. One can tell there were many gaps between the conceptualization and the opening night. The project that had promised to bring “Beatrice” back materialized into a boring, ugly, unsexy, and politically banal staging that looked expensively cheap even for a high school production.

Last year, in a promotional video, Sellars explained his concept for “Beatrice” in his usual erudite and charming way. Speaking in his beautifully accented French, Sellars explained that “Beatrice” has a strong political message and shared some of George Tsypin’s drawings for the scenarios . These conceptions look like the Sistine Chapel compared to what I saw in Bastille. The main idea was to build a Milanese Garden out of iron, a blend between Trump Tower’s bathrooms and Guantanamo security. Sometimes, through the fences of the walls, we can see the chorus and rounded structures that resembled toilet covers. Even the trimmed trees were made of iron. The effect was of an immense prison. The concept might have seemed good on paper, but the visuals were hard to accept. The scenario has little lighting flexibility and looks exactly like Trump’s toilet: excessively expensive and unnecessarily distasteful.

Usually, Sellars works with a set of singers who can all act well. This usually masks any shortcomings in the staging and also allows him to better frame his obsession with desire. It seems that “Beatrice,” though filled with willing singers, did not have a scenic direction that united all the singers. The scenic movements seemed as rigid as the iron bars of the scenario. The result was a pale scene that was, at best, disturbingly boring for an opera about torture.

Conductor Mark Wigglesworth read the opera with maximum lyricism, perhaps overwhelmed by the opera melodies without truly accessing the lewdness inherent to the plot. Technically, his command was extremely correct. All of the singers could be perfectly audible—which is never a given—and his slow tempi brought out a melodic tenderness in Bellini that is often forgotten nowadays. Nevertheless, the orchestra was not very colorful. Like the silver pale scenario, the pit elicited a similar tonality that, after a few minutes, was perhaps not ideal. Everything was too solemn. All of the songs became self-reflections of songs. Even the most profane and disingenuous sounds were as sacralized as the holy Eucharist. The result, though beautiful, was a dramatic failure. Few moments worked, especially in the second act trial scene.

As a principle, I am against making opera singers “compete” with ghosts. It is not that one does not think of “La Stupenda” or “La Divina” when hearing opera, but there is a fundamental difference between assessing how a singer positions him or herself  within a vocal tradition and dismissing them for failing to sing  as well as someone else did in 1950. Such a distinction is a matter of fairness and sincerity. Opera is about live performance, and I can only assess performances that were done live when I was alive. Again, this does not mean that recorded voices of the past do not ring in my head (they do, a lot), but that the enjoyment of the performance cannot be dictated by a museum-like command of the voice. Singing is about a body in movement, and a critic must enjoy it when things change.

Vocally, this “Beatrice” was the quintessential proof of this principle of mine. To my knowledge, all of the singers were good examples of how voices interact with tradition and the past in multiple ways—some sought to be part of a certain tradition of singing, while others aimed for something completely new.

On the more “revolutionary” side was the night’s prima donna, Tamara Wilson. Perhaps scenically misused, the American soprano clearly has an instrument that is not automatically linked to bel canto. While many critics felt the urge to criticize her precisely because of that—and I understand them—, I think the beauty of her work lay precisely in the way she managed to mold her instrument in conversation with the score. Her coloratura is not abundant, and some of her high notes are, perhaps, a bit too bright; however, what attentive work! Wilson never shouts—with that voice, she does not need to—; her coloratura does not sound hushed or blurry, and each note seemed to come out of a sense of dramatical impulse. It is rare that I can go to an opera in Paris and hear good Italian. Usually, the pronunciation is merely fine. In Wilson, I found a soprano who understands the power of the words in bel canto. I could follow the action listening to her and Kelsey almost devouring each other. Such textual attention was also her way of circumventing the problem of how to unveil the political and tense libretto of “Beatrice” across, or in face of, such beautifully crafted melodies. Wilson emphasizes the text so these operatic tensions became explicit.

Wilson does not have a wide color palette in her voice, but she compensates for that with a wide range of dynamics and a great command of vocal projection. Her voice, always impressive, is never too loud, letting all her colleagues be heard. Overall, Wilson overflowed with a sense of congenial professionalism that is admirable—though it might lack some of the transcendental sublimity that bel canto can often provide. Scenically, the conversation is a bit different. Wilson is a willful actress, but perhaps her “Beatrice” is a bit too nice and too shy on stage for a character who has been deemed a protofeminist. Do not get me wrong, in the second act, it was noticeable how well-suited Wilson is to portray the suffering woman. She embraced the physical movements of her mutilated body with so much graciousness and realism that was moving. The issue was the first act. Her portrait of a society woman might have made her too meek, lacking a certain fire that appeared in her voice, but not in her movements.

Yet, an interesting work from a singer whose name might not be the first to come to mind when thinking about Bellini. Perhaps she will sing other heavy bel canto roles? That is up to her. I think she might not be the Beatrice and Norma we have idealized, but her approach does not lack charm and—perhaps with the right conductor and better staging—has the potential to actually be great. If Wilson represents a singer from different vocal realms exploring bel canto, Pene Pati seems to be the incorporation of the Italian tenor of our current age. His voice, especially live, sounds like the embodiment of my idealizations of a tenor sound. If I thought Pati was great in Champs-Elysées’s “La Bohème” last season, after “Beatrice,” I will write down his name on my forever short-list. His higher register is significantly better tamed, and his phrasing is even better.

In the second act it was a complete delight to hear him as Orombello—from the judgment scene to his genial singing from the backstage in “Angiol di pace” trio. What I personally find most enjoyable in Pati’s singing is the way he incorporates a certain tradition of Italian singing but manages to have a voice that is completely his own. In fact, few tenors of his generation have such recognizable voices as he does. His wooden, colorful tone shines in the medium register, with little vibrato and an almost speech-like quality in textual delivery. Pati also continues the long tradition of Italian tenors who can sing better than they can act. The few times I have seen Pati on stage, he has always been directed by someone who is among a few of my very favorite directors; still, one could tell he has a very “old-school” understanding of operatic acting: he stops somewhere in the stage and sings. The trial scene was clearly a challenge for him. Quinn Kelsey seems on the other hand to be better balanced between acting and singing. His Fillipo, though petty and ridiculously inflexible, is not devoid of a certain charisma. His voice aligned with good acting instincts made most of the night compelling. From his first aria, he already set a high standard for the night. In fact, the slow tempi of Wigglesworth certainly suited Kelsey better than anyone else in the cast.

German Soprano Theresa Kronthaler was perhaps overly sweet in her melodic lines as the bitter and vengeful Agnese. Her voice, which is also Wagnerian, has a very charming core with slightly opaque higher notes—which might have injured her Bellinian phrasing, especially in the first act. To my mind, too, I missed a bit of the venom that ought to have been in her voice at certain moments. Her character said hideous things without much distinction between them and everything else she sang. Also, it did not help she was often singing from a porch at the top of the proscenium—during most of the second act she looked at a small black board that, from a distance, made her seem to be a singer reading the score while everyone else was already in full acting mode. Still, she is a soprano to enjoy.

Pene Pati’s brother, tenor Amitai Pati plays Anichino (here Orombello’s brother). A nice voice in a small role, Amitai is singing bigger roles this season.

At the end of the opera, Beatrice is murdered by gunfire. Her singing is capable of dissuading some of the soldiers, but not all of them. While a few leave the stage and do not take part in such an act of injustice, others stay and kill her on command. Perhaps this “Beatrice” production shares a similar fate: its many charms might work for some (myself included), but does not stop others from shooting it to death.


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