Librettist: Felice Romani
Conductor: Giacomo Sagripanti
Beatrice: Jessica Pratt
Filippo: Andrzej Filonczyk
Orombello: Matthew Polenzani
Agnese: Chiara Polese
Just as I was getting ready to go to the Teatro di San Carlo with my friend Vittorio for a symphonic concert earlier this month, another offer for discounted tickets from them popped up in my inbox, this time for a concert version of Vincenzo Bellini’s not-so-well-known-but-apparently-worth-knowing Beatrice di Tenda later in September. Needless to say, after enjoying a very satisfying concert featuring Bruckner’s 4th symphony in the newly refreshed space, we were more than happy to sign up for another concert, especially one of an Italian opera this time.
Last Saturday was Naples’ first day of rain in a long time, but the perspective of discovering another work by the “Swan of Catania”, who happened to have studied at the prestigious conservatorio di San Sebastiano and gotten his first taste of success in the Parthenopean city, was enough to keep us in high spirits. Even better, a closer look at the cast made me realize that it included crowd (and personal) favorite Matthew Polenzani, who was a first-rate Don Carlo within those same walls last January. So nice to see him back so soon!
Inspired by an actual historical fact and completed despite many difficulties, Beatrice di Tenda unsurprisingly relies on an intricate entanglement between politics, love and cruelty, all vividly related via myriads of highly emotional and irresistibly melodic twists and turns, to keep the audience on their feet. And really, what more could we ask for in our first opera of the season?
Well, being able to enjoy it in peace would have been nice, but it was not quite meant to be, as our premium parterre seats quickly turned out to be less premium than expected when one the otherwise well-behaved teenagers behind us started to repeatedly (and loudly) blow his nose, although he admittedly at least had the courtesy to wait for the louder passages. One has to be grateful for the little things sometimes.
A well-known expert of the bel canto repertoire, Australian coloratura soprano Jessica Pratt sounded like the ideal interpreter for Beatrice di Tenda, Duchess of Milan, on paper. After hearing her handle Bellini’s impossibly long lines and challenging acrobatics with stupefying ease and delectation, I am happy to confirm that she is a natural in person as well. And the packed audience clearly agreed with me as it spontaneously burst into frenetic applause after her first two back-to-back arias, during which she displayed a wide range of her prodigious skills from sotto voce to full volume. And she was just getting started.
A charismatic presence appearing first in a sumptuous turquoise taffeta dress complete with floor-reaching long sleeves and a long train, which would be replaced by a dark one after intermission as she courageously faced her trial and death sentence, Pratt exuded both delicate refinement and unwavering strength, her much put-upon Beatrice always sticking to the high road with full command of her voice, if not of her fate. She also incidentally demonstrated why a woman should never marry a younger man who is beneath her in terms of financial, territorial and military, not to mention moral, power simply out of grief over the death of her first husband.
As Beatrice’s husband Filippo, Duke of Milan, appropriately young and already poised beyond his years Polish baritone Andrzej Filonczyk confidently made his mark on Saturday night. His singing had the firm tone, cool phrasing and ominous dark shades necessary to suggest the ungrateful man’s ruthlessness and willingness to believe the unbelievable to advance his own cause. Filonczyk also did an excellent job at showing the Duke’s temporarily vacillating resolve that gave him a chance to become more than a one-dimensional bad guy character, but alas for Beatrice, those flashes of decency did not last long.
The good guy of the story, Orombello, Lord of Ventimiglia, was winningly interpreted by a long-time veteran of the genre in ever-reliable American tenor Matthew Polenzani. A hapless, and therefore endearing, victim of unrequited love, unbridled jealousy and, to add insult to injury, unspeakable tortures, his good guy was having a really bad night indeed on Saturday, and all those misfortunes were conveyed with such vocal and emotional commitment that it was impossible not to feel his excruciating mental and physical pain.
As Agnese del Maino, the young woman whom Filippo loves, but who loves Orombello, who loves Beatrice, who is too depressed to love anybody (one can already smell trouble ahead), and the trigger of the whole tragic chain of events, emerging local mezzo-soprano Chiara Polese did not let herself be intimidated by the more confirmed talents next to her on the stage and proved that she could easily compete with the best of them. An effortlessly engaging singer and actor who has obviously figured out how to create a memorable character, she was particularly terrific in the final scene with Pratt, which was an undisputed highlight of the performance.
Another star turn came from the San Carlo’s stupendous chorus, which seems to sound better every time I get to hear them, and I’d like to especially tip my hat to its uniformly splendid men section. This Beatrice di Tenda provided them all with a lot of opportunities to do their thing in various combinations, and no matter what was requested of them, they fulfilled their part with laudable fervor and increased sharpness as the evening went on.
Bellini’s magnificent score is peppered with sweeping dramatic peaks as well as exquisite introspective musings that keep the deliciously over-the-top plot moving, and it is to maestro Sagripanti’s credit that he kept things running relatively smoothly, even if an extra round of tweaking would have probably turned this very good performance into an excellent one. That said, it is hard to complain about a conductor being over-enthusiastic about the music, especially when the extra layer of excitement was readily perceived by the audience, who happily lapped it all up all the way to Beatrice’s final “Addio”.
Once the performance at the San Carlo was over and we stepped outside, we quickly realized that our entertainment for the evening was not over, and that finding ourselves in the hot part of town on a Saturday night — which would have never happened if we had been able to choose another date — would turn out to be an, err, interesting anthropological experience: As we were making our way home by foot and subway, we regularly came across countless hordes of often half-naked (No wonder they catch colds) and occasionally tarted-up, carefree and restless, youngsters whose night on the town was evidently just getting started and would probably be a long one. Oh, to be young again. Then again, maybe not.