KATONAH, NY: Il Pirata
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Il Pirata

Bel Canto at Caramoor

In Review Caramoor Pirata hdl 717
Soprano Angela Meade in the role of Imogene in Bel Canto at Caramoor's presentation of Il Pirata, conducted by Will Crutchfield
Photo by Gabe Palacio

CONDUCTOR WILL CRUTCHFIELD bade farewell to the Caramoor Festival in fine style with his July 8 performance of Bellini’s Il Pirata. Earlier this year, the festival announced the termination of Crutchfield’s Bel Canto at Caramoor program, making this his final effort there. This Pirata may not have been intended as an act of summation, but it proved an abundant demonstration of the virtues the program has displayed over the past twenty years.

Although the performance was “semi-staged,” it made no particular case for Il Pirata as a riveting piece of musical drama; instead, the boilerplate Ottocento melodrama came across as a springboard for abundant melody and vocal display. Stage movements were rudimentary. (No stage director was credited.) But the staging tactic had the salutary effect of requiring the principals to perform “off book,” connecting with each other and, more importantly, directly with the audience. This was certainly part of the reason why each and every number drew clamorous ovations: you had to cheer the valiant performers as they delivered stunning displays of vocal virtuosity while working without a net.

Angela Meade had a rousing success in the prima donna role of Imogene. She is a Caramoor stalwart, and the audience greeted her as a favorite daughter; in return, she offered a generous display of her remarkable vocal gifts. The large scale and solidity of her voice were no surprise; neither was the agility with which she maneuvered it through rapid passagework. But she demonstrated a wider range of vocal colors than ever before: in particular, a tangy frontal resonance that lent a newfound authority to declamatory passages. The decisiveness of her vocal gestures attested to meticulous preparation, but there was nothing studied in Meade’s presentation; instead, she performed with the freedom of a prima donna set loose in her natural environment.

Argentinian tenor Santiago Ballerini had an equal success as Gualtiero, the pirate of the work’s title. His voice is small, even delicate, but with a compensating core of metal. In the contrasting phrases of Gualtiero’s entrance aria “Nel furor delle tempeste,” Ballerini brought impressive force to martial gestures along with melting lyricism to tender ones. The voice remained under unerring technical control throughout the evening, with finely gauged diminuendos that registered as sighs, and prodigious breath control that enabled him to sustain Bellini’s long, long phrases to their natural conclusion. In a Times interview published the weekend of the performance, Crutchfield bemoaned the lack of bel canto virtues among the younger generation of singers; clearly in Ballerini he found an exception to the rule. 

As Ernesto, the villain of the piece, Harold Wilson poured out warm, firm sound in his entrance aria, to the audience’s delight. In passagework elsewhere, his bass turned a bit blustery. Robyn Marie Lamp, as Imogene’s confidante Adele, displayed an ample spinto soprano that suggested a bel canto diva in the making. 

The performance had moments of uncertain ensemble, especially when the chorus, made up of program apprentices, entered the scene. But Crutchfield showed himself a master of Bellinian rubato, quickening and slowing the long melodies to make them seem suspended on elastic, taut yet pliant. The conductor has announced Teatro Nuovo, a new bel canto venture in Purchase, New York, for next summer; I’m eager to witness him continuing there the process of exploration he has so ably undertaken for the past two decades at Caramoor.  —Fred Cohn 

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