Bel Canto at Caramoor presents Bellini’s Il Pirata

Vincenzo Bellini’s infrequently performed opera Il Pirata graces the concert stage of the Venetian Theatre at the Caramoor International Music Festival on July 8. Will Crutchfield, Director of Opera and founder of Bel Canto at Caramoor, conducts. Soprano Angela Meade, who has appeared previously at Caramoor in other rarities of the Italian bel canto repertory, who now sings regularly at the Metropolitan Opera and at other great opera houses around the world, will essay her first Imogene, as well as perform in the Opening Night Gala on June 17. OperaMetro (OM) had the privilege to talk with Will Crutchfield (WC) and Angela Meade (AM) whilst supping a light luncheon, cucumber sandwiches and perhaps some iced tea overlooking the lush property of Caramoor…well, no, truth is I'm down in my dark office at home and I haven’t the faintest idea where they could be as they composed their wonderful answers to my emailed questions. But we can pretend. Here goes:

OM: Will, Angela, welcome again!

AM: Yes, thank you.

WC: Thank you.

OM: You’re doing Il pirata, which, though only Bellini’s third opera, premiered at La Scala in 1827. We know Domenico Barbaja managed Scala and also managed big theaters in Naples, where Bellini’s second opera, Bianca e Gernando premiered. What signs were there in Bianca that would lead Barbaja to commission a new opera from such a young man for the grand La Scala?

Will Crutchfield conducts Orchestra of St. Luke's for Bellini's  Il pirata

Will Crutchfield conducts Orchestra of St. Luke's for Bellini's Il pirata

WC: Bellini's very first opera, Adelson e Salviniwas written while he was a student in Naples, and was a "hit" with a student cast. Barbaja had a contract with the conservatories to produce an opera by their most promising student; the composer Niccolò Zingarelli nominated Bellini for this honor, and as a result Bianca was put on at the San Carlo, Naples, with Henriette Méric-Lalande and Giovanni Rubini in the leading roles. When that succeeded, it was natural for Barbaja to propose a commission with the same two singers for La Scala, which was Il pirata. Rubini, especially, would premiere other Bellini operas, including creating the role of Arturo in I Puritani.

OM: Today Pirata sits on the fringe, on the Rings of Saturn, so to speak, around the planet of the standard repertory we know and love...whereas Bianca, interesting as it is, is off somewhere in outer space. If there is a qualitative leap from Bianca to Pirata, what aspects of the latter are the substance of this leap? Is the addition of Felice Romani’s libretto a significant factor?

WC: Romani is THE factor. Bellini's musical gift was almost fully-formed from a very early age. He was equipped both musically and intellectually to respond to the work of a great poet, which Romani was. His librettos have a psychological through-line and unity of atmosphere that make him one of the major figures in the history of opera, indeed, seven of Bellini's ten operas were written with him. Bellini and Romani could sustain a mood or a situation and probe into it profoundly. They didn't need to look for surface variety because they had the ability to go in one direction at a time with powerful eloquence. It's one of the great collaborations in history, like Mozart with Da Ponte or Gluck with Calzabigi.

OM: Epic collaborations, to be sure.

WC: Once Bellini hit his stride by finding the right partner in Romani, I think everything he composed was on the same high level. Yes, Zaira falls below the others due to the hasty circumstances – this is generally agreed, and I think it's fair, but Bellini recovered quickly with I Capuleti e i Montecchi. At the very end, in I puritaniwe see Bellini experimenting with some more adventurous harmonies - I think he got them partly from Chopin - but his early death means we don't get to know where he would have gone with those.

Angela Meade to sing Imogene in Bellini's  Il Pirata  at Caramoor

Angela Meade to sing Imogene in Bellini's Il Pirata at Caramoor

OM: On to Pirata: Angela, first time with the role of Imogene? Or have you performed it before?

AM: This is indeed my first time with Il pirata. It’s been on my wish list for several years; however, finding an opportunity to essay the part was a challenge.

OM: What drew you to it?

AM: I initially fell in love with the final scene, both the beauty of the cavatina and the ferocity of the cabaletta as well as the drama of the situation.

OM: It’s a powerful scene, as well as its evocative orchestral introduction.

AM: Yes, but in addition to that final scene, the entire score is emotionally compelling. Imogene is caught in your classic no-win situation: her lover Gualtiero has fled after a conflict with Ernesto, Duke of Caldora. In order to save her father’s life, Imogene has been forced to marry the Duke and then have a child with him. But she has dark premonitions of Gualtiero’s death, which are expressed in her first aria. Twist of fate here, she finds out her lover is actually alive and has come back to Caldora. Imogene is overwhelmed with anxiety that he will be discovered by Ernesto and killed, thus fulfilling her premonitions.

OM: That’s a no-win situation, for sure!

AM: Ernesto not only finds out that she is still in love with Gualtiero, but, worse, he has seen him, here in Caldora, alive! The tension between Imogene and Ernesto explodes and finally she goes mad when the two men put their own hatred for each other ahead of any concern for her. They leave her to fight it out to the death.

OM: Grim. Angela, you’ve sung Bellini’s Norma and Verdi’s Elvira in Ernani at the Met, Rossini’s Semiramide is coming there in February, but now Imogene at Caramoor. Would we agree that these operas are ‘of a style,’ yet different bel canto roles from, say, Gilda or Lucia? Would you say that vocally you’re most comfortable in these roles? Roles you sing marvelously, I’ll quickly add…

AM: Thank you! I feel like all bel canto roles, including early Verdi, are connected or at least should be. The technique is the same. I believe my voice lends itself to this style of music and I also am passionate about it and therefore I am an advocate for it.

WC: I venture to say it's a good thing for bel canto opera if we restore the idea that contrasting voices can sing the same role and cast different light on it. Angela could sing every single role Bellini wrote for soprano, but I think there are others, with voices to a degree different from hers, who also could sing these roles. You can say that Norma needs more sheer volume than Amina in La sonnambula - ok, fair enough - but after all those two roles were written for the same artist. To an extent I feel we over-emphasize a “type" of voice today. For me it’s more important to have the solid training and the vocal skills and then the artistry and intelligence as a singer to communicate something through these.

OM: Okay, let’s rewind to the beginning. You’re singing Imogene in Pirata, summer of 2017. Is there a general trajectory in time from “Wow! I really want to sing this role” to the actual performance of it on the stage? In other words, in your experience, FYI younger singers reading this, what is the approximate time line from your wish list to a public performance for a role?

Angela Meade actually on stage at Caramoor

Angela Meade actually on stage at Caramoor

AM: Well, I am of the mindset that all singers should have a general outline of when and what roles they should sing and when to add heavier/bigger/different fach roles. I thoroughly enjoy the bel canto repertoire and have never, not even once been bored by the schedule of roles I keep. I would like to keep my voice in the same place, singing the high bel canto and early Verdi roles as long as possible. This said, though, each role in my experience had its own trajectory. Some roles are added at the last minute due to cancellations, no warning, and you have to put them in your voice quickly, shift your schedule around. Others you have months or even years from the first notification through preparation time and onto the stage. Obviously the latter is preferred but not always possible.

OM: Example?

AM: Well, Rossini’s Ermione is a role I had always wanted to sing but I wasn’t sure where or when the opportunity would arise. Suddenly, out of the clear blue, it popped up just 6 weeks before the beginning of the rehearsal period, so I scrambled...and this in the midst of planning my wedding! But then other times, like Alice in Falstaff at the Met I had a three year lead time to prepare it.

OM: I LOVED your Alice Ford in the Met’s new Falstaff! Updated, certainly, but not stupid. The comradery and joy with the other women on stage was infectious. Bravi! Tell me about your experience stepping into the role and working with Robert Carsen and the cast for this production.

AM: Falstaff was a dream. The other women in the production were not only colleagues but also friends. It was such a joy to work in that environment! Working with Maestro Levine in one of his signature and favorite operas was an inspiration and his passion for the piece was infectious. And director Robert Carsen was delightful to work with. He was insightful, kind, encouraging and had a lot of detail specific ideas regarding the production. I thought the idea of updating it to the 1950’s was genius and P.S. I ADORED my yellow kitchen and matching dress!

OM: It was magical, for sure. Will, how about the rest of the cast for Il pirata?

WC: I'm very excited about both Santiago Ballerini and Harold Wilson. Ballerini had a big success here in Donizetti’s La favorite and I immediately wanted to bring him back - he has a strong, focused, beautiful tenor sound and an unusual seriousness as an actor. Wilson is a powerful bass, a Wagner bass, with the expertise to sing fast, precise coloratura right along with a soprano. The role of Ernesto is usually miscast - here we're not talking so much about "type" of voice as simple range of voice. It has a lot of low notes and not many high notes, so a bass with a good upper range can fill it better than a typical baritone. Actually, the character is a lot like Hunding in Wagner’s Die Walküre - honorable by his own lights, but married to an unwilling spouse. That was a big topic for opera at a time when the right of women to choose marriage freely was not yet secure, even in the parts of the world where it is protected now. So I'm glad to have a Hunding-type bass who can also sing bel canto.

OM: You’re doing a few other Bel Canto events this summer, as always. I see one concerning the great bel canto tenor Manuel Garcia. Coincidentally I’ve been doing a lot of reading about soprano Maria Malibran, so I know much about the personality of Garcia the father and the psychology of Maria the daughter. Curious: is the event about Garcia on June 29 a program of arias he would have sung, duets with Maria, maybe about the impact he had on the opera of that time time…or, for that matter, the impact his son had as a master teacher of the voice?

WC: Actually this event is a complete chamber opera García wrote for his students, just after his retirement from the stage. It is an Italian comedy composed in the form of singing lessons - perfect for the young singers in our program!

OM: I interview a lot of younger, upcoming singers for these pages as well. Angela, what advice would you give those who are a few steps behind you, in terms of career coaching?

AM: I’d tell them it’s all about the music and with that your strong dedication to the work. When you’re performing it’s about living the character through the words and how the composer set those words to music. It’s about listening and learning and being actively engaged in the whole process…oh, and being a good colleague.

OM: Make good choices.

AM: That too.

OM: All right, so here it is, summer, nice weather, I always seem to mention the weather at the tail end of my reviews, for most people it's time for a vacation. But here you are gearing up for a major performance at Caramoor! What does Angela Meade do to relax or regroup? I’ll bet you’ll say ‘there is no time to relax,’ you’re always ‘working’ on something…I get it, I do this too, but what not-on-stage-singing projects do you reserve for that little slice of downtime? 

AM: There is some downtime, but this business doesn’t allow for a specific period of downtime with any consistency every year. What’s more, being booked years in advance sometimes brings that issue to the forefront because for various reasons engagements get squeezed together. Often I don’t realize until I’m in the midst of the engagement that I haven’t had a respite in quite a long time. If that happens and I feel like I need some time away, I’ll take myself to a spa for a day.

OM: Relaxing, refreshing.

AM: On the other side of that, I’ve always been a bit of a work-a-holic and I love to be actively doing something, so a lot of times when I’m “on vacation” I’m still learning music or planning something else I’d like to try. If I truly have several weeks off, which hardly ever happens, I enjoy taking in the beauty of nature. I grew up in Washington State, I have to say I very much miss nature when I live in cities almost exclusively throughout the year. I also have a huge love of baking.

OM: I too! Bread mainly.

AM: I’m more into the decorating side of baking: I’ve taken several classes on cake/cookie decorating: I would also love to try my hand at evening gown design.

OM: Thank you Will, thank you Angela, thank you Vincenzo! Best wishes with Pirata!

WC and AM: And to you as well!

Photos from Caramoor, also from Angela Meade's website

Tickets for Il pirata may be purchased through the link:

Tickets are $20, $50, $70, $96, $110.

The Box Office is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. Outside of normal business hours, the Box Office is also open two hours prior to the start of each performance.

Enjoy! Nice day today! The round bright object in the sky is the sun. J