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26 Aug 2019

Bel Canto Beauty at St George's Hanover Square: Bellini's Beatrice di Tenda

A merciless and neurotic ruler, whose right to govern is ambiguous and disputed. A dignified Queen whose star is setting, as her husband’s heart burns with new love and her lady-in-waiting betrays her. A courtier whose devotion to the Queen, his first love, is undimmed and destined to push both towards a tragic end. No, not Donizetti’s Anna Bolena but Bellini’s Beatrice di Tenda, written three years later, in 1833, for Venice’s La Fenice.

Same librettist, though. Sadly, circumstances and haste compelled Felice Romani to resort to self-recycling in a manner which deprived the characters of substance and development, and substituted contrivance for dramatic credibility. Struggling to fulfil his role as poet-in-residence at Teatro alla Scala, and with premieres also scheduled for La Parma and Florence, Romani began work on a libretto on Bellini’s initially preferred subject of Queen Christina of Sweden, only for the composer to change his mind. Bellini was influenced by Giuditta Pasta who proposed an opera on the tragic tale of Beatrice Lascaris di Tenda - the wife of Filippo Maria Visconti who succeeded his murdered brother to the Duchy of Milan and used his wife’s personal resources to extend his demesne, before becoming jealous of her first husband’s reputation as a noble soldier and hatching a plot to have Beatrice convicted of adultery and, alongside her supporters, executed.

Romani’s progress was dilatory; the premiere was delayed; a professional partnership and friendship was irreparably damaged. By the time Romani had provided Bellini with a text which essentially translated the amorous and political intrigues of the sixteenth-century Tudor court to fifteenth-century Milan, the public’s hackles were already sharpened and Beatrice di Tenda received a negative reception at its premiere. A public blame-game played by mud-slinging backers of Bellini and Romani followed, and although subsequently attitudes softened, and the opera was heard across Europe, in the US and in Latin America in the ensuing 20 years, thereafter it disappeared into the operatic hinterland.

Ironically, Beatrice di Tenda is well-suited both to a concert staging and for performance by young soloists well-schooled in the art of bel canto singing, as was the case at St George’s Church Hanover Square at the second of two performances which closed the 2019 London Bel Canto Festival. Under its Artistic Director, Ken Querns Langley , a singer, teacher and researcher of bel canto, the Festival serves an academy for young singers to learn bel canto technique and idiom, offers the public an opportunity to hear performances by bel canto trained voices, and supports the creation of new music. The soloists and members of the Chorus had enjoyed masterclasses with Bruce Ford, Nelly Miricioiu and Langley himself, and other events during the 20-day Festival included a ‘Come and Sing’, enabling the public to work on the choruses in Beatrice, a panel-discussion and a gala concert at the National Liberal Club in Whitehall.

The plot is straightforward and the denouement inevitable: Beatrice is married to Filippo who desires the younger Agnese del Maino; the latter is in love with the courtier Orombello, who in turn adores Beatrice. Fearful of a popular uprising in support of Beatrice, Filippo has Orombello and Beatrice imprisoned in the Castle of Binasco; under torture, Orombello confesses to adultery. A tribunal is convened, and despite the guilt with briefly troubles both Agnese and Filippo’s, the Duke’s fear that troops loyal to Beatrice will storm the castle walls leads him to sign her death warrant. She accepts her fate, forgives the repentant Agnese and declares herself ready for death.

The cast worked hard and with considerable success to establish character, dramatic shape and tension. Despite the spatial limitations of the venue, they made full use of St George’s aisles and balconies. It helped, too, that - excepting Brian Hotchkin (Filippo) - they all sang largely and confidently off-score. It was a pity that the music stands, rather redundant for much of the time, were spread so widely, for this discouraged the sort of interaction that, when the singers took things into their own hands and moved towards the centre, lifted the dramatic temperature considerably.

The role of Beatrice is dramatically limited, dignified victimhood being her default mode, but the vocal demands are considerable. Australian soprano Livia Brash has a richly upholstered and luxuriantly coloured lirico-dramtico soprano and she exhibited range, strength and nuance, rising with considerable power in the ensembles and showing stamina in arias whose tessitura is frequently high. Her control and accuracy were less consistent, however; some of the coloratura was a little blurry, especially in the double-aria finale - though she can be forgiven for tiring a little at the close - and the intonation was not always spot-on, with notes sometimes approached from beneath, or wavering when sustained. But, overall, Brash’s was an impressive performance of considerable commitment and accomplishment, and one from which she clearly derived enormous pleasure and fulfilment.

On 22nd July the title role had been taken by Danish soprano Simone Victor who, at the Gala concert the following evening, gave a beautiful performance - self-composed yet imbued with feeling - of Beatrice’s first aria, ‘Ma la sola’, in which the Queen laments Filippo’s waning affection.

Given that she is still a student (at Stephen F. Austin State University, where she is studying Music Education), American mezzo-soprano Taryn Surratt really impressed as Agnese. Romani doesn’t give the singer of this role much help: potentially Agnese is riven by complex emotions - blinded by love to act with selfish cruelty, but later beset by a remorse which compels her to confess - but after an initial aria and duet at the start of Act 1, she’s little more than one voice among many in the long Act 1 finale and Act 2’s trial scene, and there is - an opportunity missed, surely - no substantial confrontation between the two women at the close. Surratt made the utmost of what she was given though; her mezzo has lustre, focus and an ear-pleasing timbre, and she displayed a graceful turn of phrase, making the most of any melodic expansiveness. She had shown similar poise and control when singing the first performance of Clara Fiedler’s ‘Cards and Kisses’ at the Gala Concert, a setting of a light-hearted poem by the Elizabeth poet John Lyly for piano and countertenor/alto: an example of the Festival’s development of new works which enable singers to express bel canto vocal principles in modern settings.

Filippo is undoubtedly a nasty piece of work: the challenge is to make him more than just a black-hearted villain, and this requires a firm but agile baritone that can impose a steely authority, intimate cruelty, and convey both repressed feeling and inner doubt. Hotchkin’s performance had many merits, not least its intimation of Filippo’s stubborn tyranny in the face of real or imagined threats to his power - Hotchkin, removing his glasses, can deliver a mean stare. But, there’s a risk that Filippo can become rather monotonal and slip into a relentless rant, and this danger wasn’t entirely avoided here. As far as one can tell in a concert staging, Hotchkin is not a natural actor, added to which, when he needed to relax and sing through the legato line, his jaw seemed to tighten, resulting during Filippo’s bellowing in a rather flannelly tone. He also struggled with role’s upper-lying forays. That said, Hotchkin did conjure the Duke’s inner distress in the death-warrant scene and his long confessional aria was well-shaped.

Beatrice’s devoted Orombello isn’t rewarded with an aria of his own - the role was first taken by Alberico Curioni whose death, as Rossini's Otello, was greeted with shouts of ‘May he not rise again!’, which may account for Bellini’s reluctance to entrust him with a role of substance - but that didn’t stop Mexican-Canadian tenor Sergio Augusto from making Orombello’s involvement in duets and ensembles vigorous, convincing and impassioned. Augusto can turn from ardency to melancholy with ease, and his single excursion into the upper reaches was securely and confidently pulled off. The minor roles of Rizzardo (Agnese's brother) and Anichino (Orombello’s friend) do little more than fulfil the need for someone to say the lines that advance the plot, but they were well sung by Indian baritone Shakti Pherwani and Iranian-born tenor Sam Elmi, respectively.

Conducting a technically secure and musically alert London City Philharmonic Orchestra, Olsi Qinami’s no-nonsense approach built the scenes effectively, particularly the long trial scene leading to Filippo’s judgement. The strings were tidy and sweet-toned, despite the general darkness of the score, and the orchestra clearly boasts an impressive woodwind and horn section. But, it was a pity that Qinami did not quieten the massed forces at the dramatic climaxes: the twelve-strong Chorus struggled to carry across the instrumental maelstrom and soloists were forced to burst their lungs and vocal chords in an attempt to surf the orchestral crests. In the quieter passages, though, the Chorus’s contribution gave much pleasure and they made a good job of embodying a multitude of group personas which often play a considerable role in the plot machinations.

For all the flaws in dramatic structure and music-text alliance, this performance convinced me that there is not a single aria, duet or ensemble in Beatrice di Tenda in which Bellini’s powers were not operating smoothly. Perhaps companies such as Chelsea Opera Group might take note?

Claire Seymour

Beatrice - Livia Brash, Filippo - Brian Hotchkin, Agnese - Taryn Surratt, Orombello - Sergio Augusto, Anichino - Sam Elmi, Rizzardo - Shakti Pherwani, Conductor - Olsi Quinam, London City Philharmonic Orchestra.

St George’s Church, Hanover Square, London; Saturday 24th August 2019.

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