Rare Pirates at Barcelona’s Liceu

SpainSpain Bellini, Il Pirata: Soloists, Liceu Symphony Orchestra & Chorus, Antonino Fogliani (conductor), Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona 7.1.2013 (JMI)

Concert Version

Imogene: Mariella Devia
Gualtiero: Gregory Kunde
Ernesto: Vladimir Stoyanov
Goffredo: Fernando Radó
Adele: Elena Copons
Itulbo: Vicenç Esteve Madrid

Picture courtesy Barcelona's Liceu © Antoni Bofill
Picture courtesy Barcelona’s Liceu © Antoni Bofill

Il Pirata is not an opera that is found in the repertory of many houses. Like Bellini’s first two operas Adelson e Salvini and Bianca e Fernando, it contains excellent music but remains in obscurity. It might be that the huge difficulties involved in the score for both tenor and soprano put many leading singers off. Only Maria Callas, Montserrat Caballé, and Franco Corelli, among the greats, dared to deal with their respective terrifying roles.

And it was indeed Montserrat Caballé who was last to sing Imogene at Barcelon’s Liceu—forty years ago. In Spain, the last attempt to revive Il Pirata took place in Bilbao in 1993 with very poor results. Outside of Spain the last serious attempts at revival took place in Ancona (2007) with Mariella Devia and José Bros, and in Marseille (2009) with Angeles Blancas as Imogene. Michael Milenski wrote about this last performance in Seen and Heard (review here).

These performances of Il Pirata in Barcelona have been a real delight for belcanto lovers, who have had the opportunity to enjoy hearing excellent singers. Hopefully that means Barcelona won’t need to wait another 40 years to see this opera again.

Conductor Antonino Fogliani made his debut in Liceu’s pit, and his interpretation brought out the true beauty of the score while supporting the true stars of this work, the singers. The orchestra was excellent, although sadly the chorus did not reach their usual high standard.

Although the opera title is Il Pirata, the protagonist is Imogene. You need a soprano with a strong middle register and very easy at the top, with an outstanding singing technique, agility, and strength to boot. Few sopranos meet those demands, but it would be nice to hear those that do in the rôle: apart from Mariella Devia maybe Diana Damrau, Anna Netrebko, and Sondra Radvanovsky. Not likely to happen, but allow an opera lover his dreams.

The Italian Mariella Devia is a miracle of nature: her voice defies expectations you might have of a singer about to turn 65. Her timbre still offers remarkable freshness, her technique is outstanding, and her top register—much demanded in this demanding opera—has not the slightest weakness or insecurity. She is an exceptional soprano, although her vocal adequacy for Imogene is debatable, since her middle range is not so strong and her low notes are not consistently produced. Being an absolutely outstanding light-lyric soprano is not exactly what Imogene requires. One of Ms Devia’s biggest shortcomings has always been her coldness, which is not very desirable in a romantic heroine, and this has not changed. In short, hers was an interpretation that demanded admiration, but failed to warm the heart.

available at Amazon V.Bellini, Il Pirata,
D.Parry / LPO
L.Tezier, C.Gannattasio, J.Bros et al.
Opera Rara

If it is difficult to find a perfect Imogene, it’s no easier a task to hunt down a Gualtiero. This romantic (even heroic) character needs to manage stratospheric notes. The presence of Gregory Kunde at Liceu raised considerable expectations. The career of this excellent tenor, now 59, has been unusual, only truly coming to prominence at a time when most performers are already thinking of retirement. Happily, his Gualtiero was excellent. His voice has gained in weight in recent years, and although his timbre has not the beauty usually associated with Mediterranean voices, his technique is outstanding, his diction impeccable, and his high register infallible. I had the impression that he wasn’t always at his full vocal power, but nothing that could mar this excellent performance.

Bulgarian baritone Vladimir Stoyanov had already sung the character of Ernesto in  Ancona, and was therefore familiar with the score, which is always useful in a concert version. He gave a good performance, with appropriate phrasing, but with his usual lack of projection at the top. The secondary characters were very well served. First and foremost the Argentine bass-baritone Fernando Radó as Goffredo, showing an excellent singing line, together with a wide and well-modulated voice.

José Mª Irurzun