New York, Carnagie Hall:”Beatrice di Tenda”

Collegiate Chorale, 71st Concert Season, Carnegie Hall, New York
Opera in two acts, libretto by Felice Romani
Music by Vincenzo Bellini
Filippo Maria Visconti NICHOLAS PALLESEN
Beatrice di Tenda ANGELA MEADE
Agnese del Maino JAMIE BARTON
Collegiate Chorale
American Symphony Orchestra
Music director and conductor James Bagwell
New York, 5th december 2012
To the chorus of his penultimate opera, Beatrice di Tenda, Bellini gives an exceptionally active dramatic role: this fact in itself recommends the piece for the forces of the Collegiate Chorale, one of New York City’s largest and most highly regarded singing groups, working with other groups throughout the year but also presenting its own, independent programs. Typically each season the Chorale performs one full-length opera, several choral works, and one operetta or musical-theater work; this season opened with Beatrice on December 5. But Beatrice, seldom heard in this city and not staged here within living memory, nevertheless arrived at Carnegie Hall with a daunting history that might have given pause to the Chorale’s music director, James Bagwell, who also conducted the American Symphony Orchestra in this performance. Because the opera is so seldom performed anywhere, it’s best known (if at all) through Joan Sutherland’s recording, from 1966. It’s unfair, surely, to come to a performance with expectations that present-day singers will match or even outdo Joan Sutherland — but it’s difficult to escape the shadow of precedent.
To sing Beatrice — and to lend her rising-star power to the proceedings — the Chorale engaged soprano Angela Meade, one of the winners of the Metropolitan Council Auditions in 2007 (with Bellini’s “Casta diva,” in fact), who also joined the Chorale for last season’s opera, Rossini’s Moïse et Pharaon. Already touted as one of the leading talents of her generation, especially in bel canto and mid-19th-century operas, where great voices are in short supply, Meade is in demand at the Metropolitan and at other leading houses in America and in Europe. (According to her biography in the programme, she has not yet sung in Italy.) At the same time, she has become the object of heated debate, on the grounds of her stage presence, her acting ability, and even her vocal technique.
Her performance on December 5 gave ample evidence both of her strengths and of her weaknesses. The sound is large and very, very beautiful, cool and creamy, smoothly produced throughout her range, and her dynamic control is often thrilling. But on this occasion she applied her bel canto tricks somewhat indifferently while displaying an imperfect command of the rhythm that propels ornaments and sustains Bellini’s long vocal lines. Her Italian is cleanly pronounced, yet she seems to have little feeling for the language, and she evinced little dramatic connection to the exceedingly virtuous, almost opaque character of Beatrice. (Admittedly, it’s not an easy role.)
For this listener, Meade remains a tantalizing figure, full of innate talent and all the tools to become a dazzling performer, yet still unsure how to use them. One wonders whether she is being pushed too fast into too many demanding roles. For others in the audience, however, her performance delivered more than enough dynamite to warrant extended cheers and a standing ovation. In short, the debate over Angela Meade is unlikely to end any time soon.
The real star among the five soloists this evening was mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton, also a winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions in 2007, who sang the role of Agnese. Here was an artist alive to the nuance of text and alert to the challenges of the music. Certainly it helps that, of the four principals in this romantic drama of palace intrigues and courtroom procedures, Agnese is easily the most compelling: Filippo loves Agnese, Agnese loves Orombello, Orombello loves Beatrice, and Beatrice loves — well, it’s not entirely clear, though she’s certainly attached to her virtuous reputation. As an actor, Barton portrayed Agnese as if she were a combination of Adalgisa and Eboli, an apt theatrical approach.  The young American mezzo, who made such a favorable impression at the Richard Tucker Foundation Gala last month, lavished on her listeners a powerful instrument, with a plush lower register that sometimes recalled that of none other than Marilyn Horne, and a gleaming upper register that came very near that of Angela Meade. Through no design of her own, Barton wound up illustrating precisely what was lacking in Meade’s performance, including rhythmic sensitivity, astutely judged and brilliantly executed coloratura, and dramatic fervor. All these qualities were present from her first vocal appearance, when she was heard from offstage: once she made her entrance, she remained fully in character. If she had any fault at all, it was that she sang too powerfully for some of her colleagues in ensemble passages — nobody could compete with her — but this was true of the Chorale, as well. (By dint of numbers, they’re powerful even at pianissimo.)
As Orombello, the American tenor Michael Spyres contributed vibrant singing and emotional conviction, particularly in Act II, when the character recants his confession in order to defend Beatrice, and in the trio with Beatrice and Agnese in the opera’s final scene. His voice exudes a plangency that perfectly suited the hapless hero. Baritone Nicholas Pallesen’s elegant phrasing and dashing presence made the villainous, conflicted Filippo almost sympathetic, though he lacked a measure of vocal heft. (Pallesen, another alumnus of the Metropolitan National Council Auditions from 2007, is a Faith Geier Young Artist with the Chorale.) In his few lines as Orombello’s confidant, Anichino, tenor Nicholas Houhoulis lent stalwart support without really resolving why Bellini and his librettist, Felice Romani, thought they needed the character in the first place.  Conducting a chorus roughly six times the size that Bellini might have imagined, an orchestra almost certain never to have played the score before for an audience, and five soloists positioned behind his back, James Bagwell did a capable job, although this listener has heard him do more nuanced, better coordinated work in more challenging scores. For Bagwell, clear diction, clean lines, and dynamic control are of utmost importance, but even when singing piano, the Chorale sometimes overwhelmed Bellini’s modest orchestrations and the soloists, too. Nevertheless, his was an impressive achievement, and while fans of Sutherland’s recording noted a few cuts in the score, for the rest of us these didn’t detract from the dramatic impact (such as it is) and the musical pleasures of this Beatrice.