Monday 26 February 2024

Bellini - Beatrice di Tenda (Paris, 2024)

Vincenzo Bellini - Beatrice di Tenda

Opéra National de Paris, 2024

Mark Wigglesworth, Peter Sellars, Tamara Wilson, Quinn Kelsey, Theresa Kronthaler, Pene Pati, Amitai Pati, Taesung Lee

Paris Opera Play - 15th February 2024

It surprises me that Beatrice di Tenda isn't a better known opera. Most of Bellini's works are revived on a semi-regular basis and his significance is hardly underestimated as an important figure in the development of Italian opera, but his works don't seem to get the attention they deserve and this one in particular is largely neglected. Why? Perhaps it's a little old fashioned for modern tastes, or perhaps the challenge of this opera is that it needs skilled singers in all the key soprano, tenor and baritone roles. It's telling the title role is defined by recordings made by the likes of Joan Sutherland, Mirella Freni and Edita Gruberova. If it's a case of needing it to be modernised a little or waiting for the right singers to come along, well, then the Paris Opera get it right with this 2024 production directed by Peter Sellars.

That's not all they get right. There's a lot more to successfully producing an opera like this and it really needs commitment, belief and passion on every level, but it also needs to be carefully pitched. Passion is at the core of the opera, but it is also surrounded in coldness and that is identified and brilliantly reflected in how the production design here contrasts with the delicacy of the playing of the exquisite melodies. It's not that the plot has a lot to offer other than romantic drama, as Italian opera thrives on that, but it's how those passions conflict with power that drive the musical drama. Bellini is masterful in his treatment of such material, no less than Verdi, Donizetti or the opera seria of Rossini, but for me the characteristic that sets Bellini apart is not just the passion, not just the sophistication of the writing, but a sense of refinement. That's fully in evidence in this lovely opera, and I think that's what the director Peter Sellars attempts to retain and reflect it in a modern light.

On the face of it the drama has little to distinguish it from many other Italian operas. Based on a historical figure, Beatrice, the Duchess of Milan, is now married to her second husband Filippo Visconti, a union that has given him great power and influence, but they now have very different ideas about how to use their position. Beatrice wishes to support social programmes, while Filippo wields his authority ruthlessly over the people. Beatrice is horrified at the impact that their marriage has inflicted on the people of the nation and considers ending the marriage, which is not easy for a woman to do. Filippo too is being advised to end the marriage, but in order to cling to the power he finds an excuse to have her reputation destroyed by accusing her of conducting an affair with the minstrel Orombello, and tortures the man into a confession.

There are a lot of familiar elements here that can be found in the historical operas of Donizetti, in Anna Bolena and Roberto Devereaux, but Bellini's opera here has a distinct character and it's the duty of director to bring that out. There is an edge to Beatrice di Tenda in a libretto doesn't hold back on the details of the violence inflicted on the people on Orombello or the cruelty of Filippo's regime, and Sellars strives to make that as hard-hitting as possible. The music might sound beautiful but it doesn't soften the darkness at the heart of the work. There is a nobility in confronting such horrors head on, never bowing, and that's what Bellini's music counters. Even Filippo in the end recognises where real power lies. Well, almost. The second concluding act of the opera consequently is extraordinary and enormously powerful. Evidently however, it's how the subject is sung by the performers is perhaps the most vital element contributing to that impact.

Bel canto is all about the singing. It's in the name and it needs to be done well or not done at all. Italian bel canto opera is not a repertoire that I have been following lately however, so few of these performers are familiar to me, but even so I can't remember hearing bel canto sung so well as it's done here. Singers and performers like this are not just there to show off the beauty of their voices, but also bring out the qualities of the music and the form, and in that respect, this is singing of the highest calibre. It's interesting too that it is American singers who shine in the main roles. Tamara Wilson's Beatrice is just phenomenal, her range impressive, her delivery and performance perfectly judged. Hawaiian born baritone Quinn Kelsey is a strong counterweight that makes Filippo a formidable opponent. No less impressive here are Theresa Kronthaler as Agnese and Pene Pati as Orombello. 

Act I consequently is impressive and immersive despite the conventionality of the plotting, while Act II is just off-the-scale brilliant, the increased intensity and emotional drama between the principal characters and their conflicting worldviews reaching almost fever pitch as they hold firmly to their beliefs and inner nature - for good and for ill. As it's Bellini, the chorus also play a large part in the swaying between these opposing positions. Like La Sonnambula, like La Straniera, they provide commentary and reaction, reflecting confusion and the horror of the people observing the troubles of high society - "Nothing escapes our eyes" -  but they have a participatory role here as well, influencing as well as being affected by what occurs. All of this not only underlines the intensity of the operatic drama, but it gives the plot considerably more weight beyond it being merely a historical royal intrigue.

Director Peter Sellars introduces a clean grand set designed by George Tsypin for La Bastille. All of the action and intrigue takes place in the palace gardens, within a low maze of hedges made of mesh steel and tall conical trees. It has a cool elegance. Costumes are modern, smart, elegant befitting the high society. Evidently there is no need to distance the drama by setting it in the original time period of 1418, but I'm not convinced that introducing laptops and mobile phones is really necessary either. When Filippo confronts Beatrice with evidence of what he sees as plotting to Beatrice's outrage as the violation of her personal secrets, he presents her with a laptop computer as evidence. Agnese can be seen later scrolling on her mobile phone doubtlessly checking how many likes she is getting on social media for her actions. It feels a little heavy-handed and doesn't really make any commentary that is worth making a point about. Window cleaners and hedge trimmers are also a distraction that add nothing to the production design.

Sellers, who incredibly has never directed an Italian opera, not even Verdi, does much more than update the production with modern technological devices. He also has some interesting things to say about the opera in an interview shown during the interval of the Paris Opera Play live broadcast of the opera. He makes a strong case for the effectiveness of the work to really touch on the horror of living under a dictatorship, about the fragility of human beings within such a regime and the possibility of them being broken. It's clearly all laid out in the libretto and in how Bellini scores it, making Beatrice di Tenda really quite revolutionary in terms of Italian opera up to that point in 1833, and unquestionably still relevant as a subject today.

Bellini's penultimate opera, I find this a much more interesting work than his more famous final opera I Puritani, but evidently a lot depends on how well individual productions are directed and sung. Sellars direction makes a strong case for the relevance in the work, Mark Wigglesworth conducts the Paris Opera orchestra with fervour, but it's the quality of the singing performances in this Paris Opera production that truly raise Beatrice di Tenda to a level of greatness.

External links: Opéra National de Paris, Paris Opera Play

Photos : © Franck Ferville/OnP