Any doubts about Renée Fleming’s current diva status at the Metropolitan Opera are put to rest by the new production of Bellini’s Il Pirata. The Met has never shown much enthusiasm for indulging prima donnas by reviving obscure star vehicles from the bel canto era – not even Callas or Caballé got one, while Sutherland and Sills were only grudgingly served. It was apparently Fleming’s choice to sing the role of Imogene in the 25-year-old Bellini’s first big success of 1827, and amazingly the Met, which had never staged the opera before, has obliged her.
Not that the company has exactly lavished all of its considerable resources on the project. Aside from Robert Perdziola’s stunning period costumes, the stage is barren of interest. Director John Copley and designer John Conklin are the same accommodating hacks responsible for the Met’s last bel canto revival, Rossini’s Semiramide in 1990, and their dreary Il Pirata, with its all-too-familiar trompe l’oeil hanging drapes and scattered freestanding bits of columnry, shows a similar lack of visual originality and theatrical imagination. Worse, Bruno Campanella conducts with limp hands, making Bellini’s longest opera seem practically endless.
Well, there is still Fleming for those who care, and in true prima donna fashion, she dominates the proceedings and does things her way. It has been alarming to hear this treasurable soprano transform herself into such a mannered singer lately, and I’m afraid she has finally lost me. As Imogene, the hapless heroine in love with a pirate but saddled with a husband, she teases Bellini’s nobly sculptured melodies mercilessly, tugging them out of shape, overdoing hairpin dynamics, scooping into the notes with an inappropriate bluesy bending of the pitch, distorting the vocal line with all sorts of explosive effects, and in general interpreting the music out of all recognition. Everything sounds extremely affected, even phony – all the more deplorable now that this important voice has reached its mature high noon and should be delivering great performances.
The one saving grace is Marcello Giordani as the pirate Gualtiero. In terms of ringing tone, heft, security, and sheer vocal glamour, he far outshines such overhyped tenors as Roberto Alagna, Salvatore Licitra, and José Cura in this repertory, and he is a careful, musical singer to boot. The only other character of any significance is Ernesto, the betrayed husband, elegantly if rather too reticently sung by Dwayne Croft. Oh, yes, there’s also Bellini’s music, much more forceful and energetic than one expects from this elegiac composer. In the eight short years he had left to live, Bellini would refine his craft and reorder his expressive priorities to an astonishing degree, but even in this flawed presentation, the youthful exuberance of his Il Pirata is worth experiencing.
Having heard Lorraine Hunt Lieberson in recital at Alice Tully Hall a day before Il Pirata, I couldn’t help but be struck by how differently she and Fleming use their voices. Lieberson is just as potent a vocal presence as Fleming; she, too, is in her prime, and she also commands a wide range of vocal devices to make her points. And yet the musical results could not be more dissimilar. Lieberson sings from the very center of her being, and in this imaginatively programmed recital of Handel arias, German lieder, French melodies, and Spanish songs with Robert Tweten as the sensitive piano accompanist, she held the audience spellbound. The sheer technical control was staggering – the seamless transitions from head to chest registers, the fine thread of focused tone floating on the breath, the subtle coloration of words. Better, every expressive nuance served the needs of the music at hand with an exquisite inevitability. Lieberson gets her own diva showcase at the Met later on this season, as Dido in Berlioz’s Les Troyens, and I can’t wait.
Like everyone else, composers were badly shaken by 9/11, and their musical responses are beginning to be heard. Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s Clarinet Concerto would surely have turned out to be quite a different piece had not the fatal date arrived just as she was about to start work on the second movement. That inevitably became an elegy, and the subsequent two movements grew from there. Astonishingly, as heard at its world premiere in Alice Tully Hall performed by clarinetist David Shifrin and twelve members of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, the entire piece shows no sign of sudden gear-shifting. The instrumentally brilliant opening is brash, hectic, and streetwise, the perfect picture of a city going about its business until stopped in its tracks. After the scream-punctuated lament, the rest of the work struggles to pick up the pieces and restore a semblance of normality, ending on a note of cautious optimism. It’s all done with the most skillful application and development of its musical materials – a score truly inspired by a tragic event and one that is likely to transcend it.
Ned Rorem’s 9/11 statement is characteristically cast in the form of a song cycle, Aftermath, which had its local premiere under the auspices of the Lyric Chamber Music Society of New York at the Kosciuszko Foundation on the composer’s 79th birthday. The ten poems that Rorem has chosen and the music he provides for them reflect not only the occasion but also his own mood of the moment, which he says is one of quizzical melancholy. The subjects are war, death, loss, regret, aging, and William Blake’s “tygers of wrath.” The opening song, “The Drum,” by John Scott of Amwell (1730–83), sets the tone: a bleak catalogue of human woes in time of war and all sung against a grim tattoo drummed out in the piano’s lowest register. Violin (Lisa Shihoten) and cello (Amy Sue Barston) join the baritone (Nathaniel Webster) and pianist (Ieva Jokubaviciute) as the moods change but seldom lighten, while the musical rhetoric only becomes more eloquent and stabs deeper into the heart of the matter as the cycle progresses to its final breathtaking image, Muriel Rukeyser’s dead poet still making poems out of silence. Rorem has composed dozens of wonderful songs over the years, but his art seems to get only richer as time passes.
Opera by Bellini, at the Metropolitan Opera.
Lorraine Hunt Lieberson
Recital at Alice Tully Hall.
By Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, at Alice Tully Hall.
By Ned Rorem, at the Kosciuszko Foundation.