The cynically inclined have an easy target in "Il pirata," Bellini's first operatic success.
Written in 1827, the rarely staged piece has a so-so plot involving 13th-century pirates, a love triangle, a fatal duel and a mad scene for the soprano. And the music is occasionally pedestrian, nowhere more so than the funeral procession in the last act, which sounds at first like the intro to "The 12th Street Rag" and then takes an almost cheery turn.
But once you listen to this opera, really listen, it is impossible to miss the melodic beauty and theatrical imagination that propels it. Washington Concert Opera, which has a 15-season track record of rescuing neglected works, offered a welcome opportunity to do just that - listen.
Without scenery or costumes, and with no need to worry about keeping the stage action convincing, it was possible to focus squarely on the notes, on those exquisitely curved vocal lines that flowed from Bellini as readily as Chopin's for the piano. A vocally commanding, dramatically involved cast made much of the score Friday evening at George Washington University's Lisner Auditorium, despite limited help from conductor Stephen Crout and a ragged orchestra.
Imogene is the central character of "Il pirata," in love with the pirate Gualtiero, who was forced into piracy and exile when his side lost a war. While Gualtiero is gone, Imogene is forced to marry Ernesto from the winning side of that conflict. A storm forces Gualtiero and his pirates into the midst of Ernesto's court. In short order, the former lovers are in emotional turmoil, and Ernesto is out for blood.
Imogene is not as fully fleshed out as, say, Norma, the heroine of Bellini's greatest opera, but she isn't just another of the wronged, emotionally torn women perpetually featured in operas. The composer makes her a compelling and sympathetic figure who tries to do the right thing and suffers the loss of all options - Ernesto, killed by Gualtiero; Gualtiero, condemned to death for the deed. Her sanity is the price she pays.
Nelly Miricioiu made much of Imogene's dilemma and music. A few high notes were shy of the mark and a few coloratura spots were cloudy, but the performance had exceptional fire and color. It was impossible not to think of Maria Callas, a riveting interpreter of this role, for Miricioiu's vocal timbre bears an uncanny resemblance to that of Callas; Miricioiu even arranged her shawl and occasionally held one hand close to her throat as Callas did in concert.
The almost eerie similarities did not detract, however, from the Romanian-born soprano's distinctive way of making Imogene a multi-dimensional character. She got at the dramatic truth behind Bellini's music, especially in "Col sorriso," the melodic precursor to "Casta diva" from "Norma."
As Gualtiero, tenor Bruce Fowler, who will sing Almaviva in Baltimore Opera's "The Barber of Seville" in the fall, begged the audience's indulgence for allergies he was suffering. But it was hard to detect any ill effects on the voice.
He delivered a sterling demonstration of "bel canto" technique - steadiness of tone in all registers, smoothness of phrasing even in the most florid passages. He negotiated the often fiercely high part with remarkable aplomb, popping out some brilliant phrase-capping notes. And all the while, Fowler made Gualtiero's pride, anger and ultimate humility persuasive.
Franco Pomponi brought a robust baritone to the role of Ernesto. Except for the limpid "Ah! lo sento" duet with Miricioiu, he rarely scaled the voice back or tried subtle nuances, but the vitality of his singing paid rich dividends. Daniel Sumegi, as Gualtiero's former tutor Goffredo, filled the hall with his grandly scaled bass and elegant phrasing.
Adequate supporting efforts came from Fleta Hylton (Adele) and Robert Baker (Itulbo). The chorus needed more confidence and powers of projection.
Crout missed many an opportunity to intensify the score at climactic moments; he likewise fell short when it came time to drive home the last notes of major scenes. Too often, his phrasing was square, colorless; Bellini requires a lot more expressive purpose. The conductor also didn't bother much with cueing singers; just because they had their scores in front of them didn't mean that no interaction was necessary.
Frayed violins and intermittent coordination troubles kept the orchestra from making much of an impression. In the end, the success of the evening was owed largely to the singers, and the considerable powers of "Il pirata" itself.