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Il Pirata

Teatro alla Scala

In Review Pirata La Scala hdl 718
Sonya Yoncheva as Imogene in Emilio Sagi’s production of Il Pirata at La Scala
Photo by Brescia/Amisano – Teatro alla Scala
In Review La Scala Pirata lg 718
Yoncheva and Piero Pretti as Gualtiero
Photo by Brescia/Amisano – Teatro alla Scala
In Review La Scala Pirata 2 lg 718
Nicola Alaimo as Ernesto
Photo by Brescia/Amisano – Teatro alla Scala

THE WORLD PREMIERE of Il Pirata at La Scala in 1827 was an unqualified success and turned the twenty-five-year-old Bellini into the favorite composer of the Milanese. In 1958, similar acclaim greeted the sole twentieth-century revival of this quintessentially Romantic opera in Milan, starring Franco Corelli and Maria Callas. Sixty years later, a new La Scala staging featuring Piero Pretti and Sonya Yoncheva in the leading roles confirmed the validity of the musical dramaturgy crafted by Bellini and his librettist Romani but failed to bring the characters stirringly to life.  (The current Ricordi score, which omits the brief final scene showing the suicide of Gualtiero, was performed uncut.) 

There was plenty of applause when the curtain fell at the end of the third performance on July 6, even though the sovrintendente Alexander Pereira had been booed and heckled by part of the audience (angered by an overlong interval) when he appeared on stage earlier in the evening to announce that Pretti was suffering from low blood pressure and would remain seated when possible in the second act. The title role of the aristocratic pirate Gualtiero is one of the most challenging in the tenor repertoire and Pretti deserved the audience’s support; he performed with reduced energy but without seriously betraying the letter of the score and undoubtedly sang many more of the written notes than Corelli did in 1958, when a number of cuts and adjustments were made. Throughout the evening however Pretti proved a sturdy executant of the music rather than the creative interpreter that Bellini’s writing begs for. He has a strong upper range, but little feeling for dynamic nuance. His diction was clear enough, but his words were seldom uttered with deep-felt eloquence.

As Imogene, Sonya Yoncheva offered a more fully studied, theatrically dominating portrayal than her leading man’s, but not a more moving one. Her voice is an agile one in relation to its (not inconsiderable) size and consistently displays striking beauty of tone in the upper middle register. Every vocal and physical gesture had clearly been carefully worked out for maximum effect (with Callas an obvious model), but Yoncheva’s emotional engagement seemed feigned rather than genuine. Imogene’s final mad scene was elaborately conceived but ultimately alienating, rather than involving. Yoncheva’s lack of a hauntingly sustained mezzavoce and the distortion of vowel sounds in the lower octave didn’t help. 

The Ernesto of Nicola Alaimo sounded rather underpowered (with a hint of strain) in climaxes above the staff, but the Sicilian baritone dispatched the coloratura with ease and his diction was both clear and meaningful. The bass Riccardo Fassi made a strong impression as Goffredo in act one and the singing of the Scala Chorus (trained by Bruno Casoni) rose impressively to the challenges of the score. Emilio Sagi’s production (with sets by Daniel Bianco and costumes by Pepa Ojanguren) didn’t even try to make the chorus members credible as fishermen or hangers on in a medieval Sicilian court. The costumes indeed—which tended to be white or black—were nineteenth–century in inspiration and the set was somewhat stalely post-modern in design, with an extensive use of shiny surfaces and mirror images. 

It was good to hear truly idiomatic playing for the Scala Orchestra in the pit, but Riccardo Frizza’s conducting, though free from eccentricity and sensitive in accompaniment, was short on inspiration: transitions and dynamic contrasts in the opening overture simply didn’t work as magically as they could.  —Stephen Hastings 

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