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In the final two months of the lost season, April and May 2021, audiences were deprived of the company premiere of Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking starring Joyce DiDonato, Susan Graham, Etienne Dupuis, and Latonia Moore, and three important revivals: Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten with Nina Stemme, Elza van den Heever, Michael Volle, and Klaus Florian Vogt; Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd with Matthew Polenzani and Joshua Hopkins; and Vincenzo Bellini’s Il Pirata, with Diana Damrau, Javier Camarena, and Christopher Maltman. For the present post we have chosen to focus on Bellini’s opera, not heard at the Met since 2002-2003.
Il Pirata had its highly successful world premiere at Milan’s La Scala in 1827, launching Bellini’s career as a major composer for the lyric stage. Neglected in the early 20th century, Il Pirata found a champion in Maria Callas who first sang Imogene at La Scala in 1958, then in a New York concert performance in 1959, now available on CD. Imogene became a congenial role for sopranos, notable among these Montserrat Caballé and Renée Fleming, with the range and the bel canto technique to meet its virtuosic demands. The Met’s first Pirata was mounted for Fleming in 2002; Marcello Giordani was Gualtiero, the pirate, and Dwayne Croft, the husband. Had Covid not intervened, the 2021 revival would have featured Diana Damrau, Javier Camarena, and Christopher Maltman.
We learn from the back story that, years before, Gualtiero
and Imogene had been in love. Against her will, Imogene had been forced to marry
Ernesto, Duke of Caldora. Thereupon, Gualtiero, the Duke’s rival, took to
piracy. The opera reunites the three protagonists, the distraught wife, the jealous
husband, the disconsolate lover.
We have chosen two excerpts that feature Maria Callas. The
first is drawn from the Act II duet, “Tu mi apristi in
cor ferita (You opened my wounded heart).” The furious Ernesto exacts
from his wife the confession that she had, indeed, loved Gualtiero who, at this
point, was falsely reported drowned. At the same time, Imogene rejects the
accusation that she had been unfaithful to her husband. Constantino Ego is the
baritone in this live 1959 Carnegie Hall performance.
Imogene’s mad scene is the opera’s conclusion. Delirious,
she has a vision of her husband, now dead, together with their son. She is
shocked by a fanfare announcing Gualtiero’s death sentence. Her frenzy grows as
she imagines the scaffold being readied for his hanging. This excerpt is drawn
from a 1959 concert in Hamburg. We are privileged to hear Callas’s masterful fusion
of Imogene’s state of mind with Bellini’s elegant phrases while we see her face
and hands convey the depth of the character’s anguish.
Post script: During the florid cabaletta of the final scene Imogene repeats the phrase “Il palco funesto (the fatal scaffold).” The word “palco” has a very different meaning in the context of the theater where it signifies a box. At the 1958 La Scala revival of Il Pirata, Callas, who was feuding with Antonio Ghiringhelli, the company’s intendant, pointed at Ghiringhelli’s box as she hurled the words “palco funesto” in his direction.