Intrigue! Torture! Death!: Bellini’s “Beatrice di Tenda”

Beatrice 1
Nicholas Pallesen and Angela Meade
All photos by Erin Baiano

You’ve heard of love triangles, but Beatrice di Tenda, in the eponymous 1833 opera by Vincenzo Bellini, meets her downfall through a love pentagon.

Last Wednesday, The Collegiate Chorale presented a lovely concert performance of the rarely-performed Beatrice di Tenda at Carnegie Hall with the American Symphony Orchestra, conducted by James Bagwell. Rising bel canto star Angela Meade impressively negotiated the intricacies of the role as Beatrice (a quick lesson in Italian pronunciation that I’m not remotely qualified to give: that’s, roughly, “bay-ah-‘tree-chay”).

Story continues below.

Beatrice is married to Duke Filippo, but neither is happy in the marriage. Filippo is in love with Agnese, who, in turn, is in love with Orombello. When she discovers that Orombello is secretly in love with Beatrice rather than requiting her feelings, Agnese conspires with Filippo to frame the pair for adultery-punishable by death in 15th-century Italy. This despite innocent Beatrice’s rejection of Orombello; rounding out the pentagon, she is still only in love with her dead first husband Facino. It’s a story just asking to be set in a high school.

Filippo and his judges have Orombello and Beatrice tortured to elicit confessions of their crime. Under duress, Orombello does confess to an affair with Beatrice, but she refuses to confirm the false accusations. Her steadfast integrity shames Orombello into recanting his confession. Ultimately, just as Filippo shows mercy for his wife and decides to pardon her, he receives word that soldiers still loyal to the memory of Facino are attacking the castle. He changes his mind and signs her death warrant. Agnese, horrified that her scheme has gone too far begs forgiveness from Beatrice, who goes triumphantly to her execution. Literally. Her final, defiant aria proclaims her death as a triumph rather than a pity.

Beatrice 2
Nicholas Houhoulis, Nicholas Pallesen, Jamie Barton, Angela Meade and
Michael Spyres in Beatrice di Tenda with The Collegiate Chorale and
the American Symphony Orchestra

But Beatrice di Tenda is not an opera focused on character development or narrative subtlety; it’s all about gorgeous music and virtuoso singing. Meade has an agile, beautiful soprano voice, and her performance was saturated with flashy ornaments and complex vocal effects that wrung all the possibilities out of bel canto style. Mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton, as Agnese, also used her warm and powerful voice dynamically. In her melodic Act 1 duet with Orombello, she brought emotion to the exchange as her rich voice filled the hall.

You can watch Meade and Bagwell discuss the history, challenges and rewards of Beatrice di Tenda here.

As Filippo, baritone Nicholas Pallesen brought more drama to his performance than the other soloists. The character is a pretty uncomplicated villain, but Pallesen added some acting and physicality to his portrayal, even in the concert format. His singing was also effective, although he occasionally veered dangerously close to crooning. As Orombello, Michael Spyres sounded great, but created less of an impression than his colleagues.

The Collegiate Chorale supplied a huge, excellent chorus that, in this work, has a particularly complex role advancing the plot, commenting on the action and conversing with the main characters. Throughout the first act, the chorus performed mostly divided by gender, with the male half supporting Filippo’s actions and the female half commiserating with Beatrice. In the second act, though, they sang more as a single unit, even the men seeming to take pity on Beatrice as Filippo condemns her.

Bellini filled Beatrice di Tenda with lyrical, elegant melodies, and the talented soloists and tight chorus at Carnegie Hall last week made a compelling case for raising the profile of this under-known opera.