The prefab riffs of computer programs like GarageBand aren’t entirely new. As shown by the musicologist Robert Gjerdingen, many 18th- and early 19th-century composers used pedagogical materials as a basis for their compositions, “composing out” passages in creative ways. But this method is not something the ordinary listener is supposed to recognize. Unfortunately, despite an abundance of vocal talent, the feeling of an exercise – a bag of bel canto tricks deployed by well-taught singers to fill the evening on schedule – never really left the Collegiate Chorale’s concert presentation of Bellini’s Beatrice di Tenda at Carnegie Hall.
Bellini’s 1833 Beatrice di Tenda is rarely performed, but it’s hard to believe that it qualifies as a forgotten masterwork. A convoluted love quadrangle taking place in 15th-century Milan, its complications play out like Donizetti’s Anna Bolena without the political excitement. The title character is stuck in a loveless marriage to duke and baritone Filippo. Filippo loves a lady named Agnese (fittingly, a mezzo) while Beatrice has an unrequited love for gentleman named Orombello (a tenor, of course). The only hitches are that Filippo needs to get out of his marriage, and also that Agnese doesn’t love Filippo back but rather Beatrice’s tenorial friend Orombello. This does not end well. Of such hitches are operatic plots made, but without the benefit of sets and costumes, and armed only with Bellini’s often-generic music (there is nothing that qualifies as a Big Tune), it’s difficult to care a great deal about the characters.
Bellini in high bel canto style means many minutes of recitatives followed by delicately ornamented vocal lines (solo, duet, or ensemble), many choruses, and lurchingly determined cabalettas. Ideally, this should control a tightly unfolding drama, but in this case one could see the wheels turning at nearly every second, right down to the harp that begins methodically plucking out arpeggios every single time someone sings offstage. This was partly due to the creaky libretto, but the awkward cuts and performances themselves were certainly a factor as well. James Bagwell’s conducting kept the pace moving, but never summoned much dramatic tension or sensitivity, nor did it allow the solo singers the natural ebb and flow that would have given their music expressive eloquence.
Of course these are familiar complaints when it comes to Bellini, a composer whose appeal is primarily his facility for writing showcase music for the beauty of the operatic voice. The cast of young American singers presented a great deal of beautiful sound with the free production, round sound, and careful legato characteristic of American vocal training. Soprano Angela Meade’s fame is largely based on ventures like this – bel canto in concert. Her silky soprano has a toolbox of floating effects, easy coloratura, and an impressive top (though the very highest notes tended towards shrillness). The registers are not quite even, with the middle lacking focus compared to her piercing high notes. And despite the beauty of much of her work, it never coalesced into a dramatic narrative or a character, lacking any connection with the text as well as an organic narrative quality that would make it seem spontaneously expressive rather than a carefully planned bit of singing.
A Beatrice di Tenda without a compelling Beatrice is a problem; however, the rest of the cast presented more interesting portrayals. Yet none quite erased the feeling that this was a demonstration of some very talented singers showing their abilities. Jamie Barton boasted the most impressive instrument in the cast, a fruity, deep mezzo of considerable volume that seemed miscast in Agnese’s high-lying, near soprano-range music. But despite occasional difficulty with the tessitura, she has powerful top notes and sang her music with some of the conviction that evaded Meade, and one hopes to hear her in more congenial circumstances soon. Michael Spyres as Orombello has a lyric tenor with a solid, consistent sound armed with a metallic edge that makes it project very well. In the large role of Filippo, promising baritone Nicholas Pallesen sounded out of his depth. While he did his best to imbue his Act II scene with menace, his smooth, light baritone would sound better as Belcore or Valentin.
The Collegiate Chorale, the presenters of the event, doubtlessly chose the opera partly due to its many choruses, which were sung ably with well-blended sound but offer very little in terms of interesting music, particularly with Bagwell’s persistently four-square conducting. The American Symphony Orchestra suffered occasional coordination problems and mustered only a scratchy sound. To some extent these complaints reveal a critic with limited sympathy for the style, who believes that Bellini’s harmonic blandness and, in this case, dull characters command little attention on their own merits. Without an injection of drama and personality from the performers (an art some divas, most of them with far more stage experience than Meade – such as, it must be said, Anna Netrebko or Edita Gruberova – have mastered), the beauty’s interest passes quickly, and in this performance it was only occasionally present. In concert, the need for a small dose of insanity becomes even more pressing. For some audience members, the singers’ formidable arsenals of techniques may have satisfied, but for those hoping for a gripping drama were only fitfully absorbed.