By James L. Paulk
KATONAH, N.Y. – Twenty years ago, musicologist, teacher, conductor, and former New York Times music critic Will Crutchfield founded “Bel Canto at Caramoor,” a summer residency at the elegant Caramoor Center, an hour and a half north of New York City, and it immediately became a must-hear destination for opera lovers. Programs have included familiar works, but the most memorable moments have come when Crutchfield tackled true rarities, often using his own carefully researched performing editions.
This summer will be Crutchfield’s final year at Caramoor and the last year of the bel canto program itself, and it seems entirely fitting that this season’s centerpiece should be Bellini’s Il Pirata, rarely performed yet known to opera fanatics everywhere for its challenging principal roles and legendary recordings by Maria Callas and Montserrat Caballé.
Il Pirata, written when Bellini was only 26 as a La Scala commission, was the composer’s first big success, and the more famous works which followed, such as Norma and La Sonnambula, featured much the same style. All are powerful psychodramas revolving around heroines in intensely dramatic situations because of their attraction to flawed men. In each case Bellini pushes his voices, especially those of his heroines, to great extremes in order to maximize the dramatic tension.
The formidable role of Imogene, the romantically conflicted heroine, requires a soprano with a solid top and middle register, power, stamina, and flawless coloratura technique. Just to get through the night with honor is an accomplishment. Angela Meade, who sang the role on July 8, was a revelation. Her technique – trills, pianissimo, and such details as the messa di voce dynamics that Crutchfield teaches – is staggering. The voice is huge. And despite occasional minor intonation issues, she is comfortable with all the notes. Meade got her big break here in 2010, selected by Crutchfield to sing Norma. It was a big success, and she has made Norma her signature role, singing it all over the globe and adding the great bel canto heroine roles as well as those of Verdi and Mozart.
As was the case with Callas, Meade’s voice is not especially beautiful, but she provides a satisfying performance because of her power and technique. Of course, Callas had the ability to convey intense, extreme emotion with voice and gesture, and that is why Imogene – driven to madness after being accused of faithlessness first by her husband, who is killed by her lover, and then by her lover, who is hanged – became one of her most significant roles. Meade’s performance is a stellar one, but she gets by more because of vocal display. She is hardly impassive and clearly is making an effort, but wild, seemingly out-of-control dramatic fireworks are not really her thing.
The title role of Gualtiero (the pirate) is almost as difficult to cast as that of Imogene. It demands a tenor with stratospheric high notes, high tessitura, and stamina. Santiago Ballerini, who sang the role, has all this and a peculiarly old-fashioned, ardent, distinctly Italian vernacular sound, even though he is from Argentina. There is something thrilling about his singing, and the audience responded with shouted ovations for each aria.
Harold Wilson sang the role of Ernesto, Duke of Caldora (and Imogene’s husband) with a strong voice that projected authority. The minor roles were filled ably by members of Bel Canto Young Artists, who also sang splendidly as the chorus.
Though the various promotional materials described this as a “semi-staged” performance, it was probably closer to a concert version. Still, there were no music stands and the singers often moved about or related to each other in the narrow spaces on each side of the conductor.
This is actually the second time Il Pirata has been featured here. In 2000, Crutchfield led a performance with Indra Thomas in the title role, Francisco Almanza as Gualtiero, and Daniel Mobbs as Ernesto. I wasn’t present that season, but the following year I reviewed the festival’s performance of Rossini’s Otello and remarked: “Mr. Crutchfield is a music critic turned conductor. One would like to say only nice things here: ‘Be true to your school,’ and all that. But the truth is that his reading was rather perfunctory, lacking shape, definition, and drama.”
Things have certainly changed in the intervening 16 years. This time around Crutchfield led the excellent Orchestra of St. Luke’s in a wide-ranging performance: sometimes vigorous, sometimes subtle, always in balance and always supporting his singers. The entire evening crackled with bel canto energy, a fitting end to an era.
Crutchfield is starting a bel canto company, Teatro Nuovo, on the SUNY Purchase campus, 20 miles from here, continuing the tradition he began with what sounds like a significantly increased budget and schedule. Meanwhile, according to Kathy Schuman, the Caramoor Center’s vice president of artistic programming: “While continuing to focus on less familiar works, [Caramoor] will explore other areas of the repertory, beginning with the Baroque era.”
James L. Paulk is a freelance critic based in New York.