Bellini's Il pirata was on display as part of the 20th anniversary season of “Bel Canto at Caramoor”. Under Will Crutchfield’s direction the festival has focused on the rediscovery of forgotten 19th-century Italian works and celebrates the legacy of the bel canto era. They've done this by pairing familiar operas like the L'elisir d'amore with seldom heard operas like Aureliano in Palmira. Another goal of Caramoor is to train the singers of tomorrow in the bel canto style. The impressive Angela Meade, who sang Imogene, is a darling of the festival. She first sang Norma at Caramoor in 2010. Since then, the Druid priestess has become her signature role.

Dating from 1827, Il pirata is Bellini's breakthrough opera. Several features delineate Bellini’s style and make the work influential for the rest of the 19th century. His extended melodic lines are on display. This is most apparent in the cantabile of Imogene’s mad scene, “Col sorriso d'innocenza.” In 1865, when Wagner wrote Tristan und Isolde, Bellini’s melodies made their mark on Isolde’s “Liebestod.” In writing Lucia Di Lammermoor, Donizetti drew inspiration from Il pirata to depict the "violent love" so essential to the story.

The opera is based on a French adaptation of a five act English drama in verse from 1816: Bertram or The Castle of St Aldobrando by Charles Maturin. The story is a love triangle featuring a noble woman, her outlaw lover, and her husband who desires to bring her lover to justice for piracy. The intense emotions and literal insanity that result allow Bellini to set the story to music complete with melancholy and sexual tension.

There was no overture. This is understandable given that the piece is written in the conventional mode of early 18th-century overtures for Italian opera. Yet under the right circumstances, this composition can set the mood in spite of its conventionality. Nonetheless cutting the overture allowed Will Crutchfield to dive right into the opening storm scene, beginning the opera in media res and giving the opening even greater immediacy. Under Crutchfield’s baton, the Orchestra of St Luke’s gave a buoyant reading of Bellini’s score. He was also adept at Bellini’s subtle dynamic shifts which make the score thrilling. Indeed, this can be said for the rest of the cast as well. Crutchfield made the most of the pungent chords, which interrupt the melodic lines, particularly in the first act, giving the opera its sense of doom. Occasionally, however, the orchestra overpowered the singers.

This performance also featured previously cut material. These were two short scenes of recitative which bookended Gualtiero’s condemnation to death. The first of which, immediately following the trio, presaged Imogene’s insanity. Perhaps this scene was more dramatically relevant than the second in which, Imogene’s chief lady-in-waiting, Adele announces the entrance of her crazed mistress. Yet, even here the audience had a chance to hear Robyn Marie Lamp’s smooth and rich voiced Adele. She was the best of the evening’s cast of secondary characters and is certainly someone to watch.

To fully portray Imogene, a soprano needs a solid command of range, dynamics, and attention to text. Angela Meade certainly possesses these qualities. Her Duchess of Caldora was something more than the doomed, somewhat passive heroine of other singers. Her fear and isolation were, of course, apparent, yet Meade also depicted Imogene’s strength. She held her own in her confrontations with Ernesto, the strain of which perhaps made her final break with reality even more inevitable.

As Gualtiero, tenor Santiago Ballerini did his best work in solo numbers. He has excellent control of subtlety in dynamics, and facility with appoggiaturas. His rendition of the cantabile before Gualtiero’s condemnation was a marvel of sustained legato. However, he was difficult to hear in the ensembles of Act 1, especially during the finale, and his higher register sounded slightly pinched. Harold Wilson lent his profound bass to the role of Ernesto, Imogene’s jilted husband.

It remains to be said that despite being performed by such illustrious singers as Maria Callas, Mariella Devia, Montserrat Caballé and Rockwell Blake, Il pirata is still very seldom performed. It hasn’t been seen at the Metropolitan Opera since the early 2000s, yet the score has many gems. This is why “Bel Canto at Caramoor” is such a vital part of New York’s operatic life.