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VINCENZO BELLINI (1801 – 1835) AND “IL PIRATA” – By Bruce Lundgren

by Luca

Vincenzo Salvatore Carmelo Francesco Bellini was one of the most important composers of Italian opera in his time. He was born in 1801 in Catania, Sicily, to a family already steeped in music; his father and grandfather were both career musicians. He began composing before receiving any formal music education. Bellini developed a reputation for fine craftsmanship, particularly in the way he forged an intricate relationship between the music and the libretto. To perform one of his operas, singers required extremely agile voices. His abilities and talent earned him the admiration of other composers, including Berlioz, Chopin, and even Wagner, and his flowing, exquisitely sculpted vocal lines represent the epitome of the bel canto ideal.
Bellini entered the Royal College of Music of San Sebastiano, now the Naples Conservatory, in 1819. Although he started off in elementary classes, he progressed rapidly and was granted free tuition by 1820. He soon developed into a teacher, becoming a primo maestrino in 1824. Bellini’s first opera, Adelson e Salvini, was chosen to be performed by the conservatory’s students. After the initial performance in February 1825, it was performed repeatedly throughout the year. This particular work was never performed outside of the conservatory, but it did serve as a source of material for at least five other operas Bellini composed. Shortly thereafter, Domenico Barbaja of the San Carlo Opera offered Bellini his first commission for an opera, which resulted in Bianca e Gernando (1826). That first commission was followed by a second from Barbaja, Il pirata (1827), and led to a long-term collaboration between Bellini and librettist Felice Romani. The premiere of Il pirata on October 27, 1827, at La Scala, Milan, established Bellini as an internationally acclaimed opera composer.
As Bellini gained experience and recognition, he settled into a working method that stressed quality instead of quantity. He composed fewer operas, for which he commanded higher prices. He was not, however, immune to the pressures of production. His opera Zaira (1829), written with Romani for the inauguration of the Teatro Ducale at Parma, was hurriedly completed; the opera was a notable failure and was never produced again. He rebounded, though, with I Capuleti e i Montecchi (based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet) in 1830.
The year 1831 proved most successful for Bellini as two of his most famous operas, La sonnambula and Norma, were produced. Although Norma was unenthusiastically received, many critics and Bellini himself believed it to be his finest work. Its aria “Casta diva” is one of the evergreens of the classical vocal repertory. These two operas were followed by a less successful composition, Beatrice di Tenda. This opera was premiered at La Fenice, Venice, on March 16, 1833, a month later than scheduled; the failure led to the falling out of Bellini and Romani.
Bellini spent the summer of 1833 in London directing performances of his operas. He then moved to Paris, where he composed and produced his last opera, I puritani, which premiered on January 24, 1835. The libretto for this particular opera was written by the exiled Italian poet Count Carlo Pepoli. Unlike Bellini’s previous two operas, I puritani was enthusiastically received. At the height of his career and only 33 years old, Bellini died of a chronic intestinal ailment on September 23, 1835, in a small town near near Paris.
(Bruce Lundgren)
“Il pirata” (“The Pirate”) is an opera in two acts by Vincenzo Bellini to an Italian libretto by Felice Romani which was based on a three-act mélodrame from 1826, “Bertram, ou le Pirate” (“Bertram, or The Pirate”) by Charles Nodier and “Raimonde” (actually Isidore Justin Séverin Taylor). However, this play was itself based upon a French translation of the “five-act verse tragedy” “Bertram, or The Castle of St Aldobrando” by Charles Maturin which appeared in London in 1816.
The original play has been compared with Bellini’s opera and the influence of “Il pirata” on Gaetano Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” has been noted Also, Bellini’s recycling of his own music in this opera has been analyzed, as well as his utilizing “a more self-consciously innovative compositional style” and participating more in work on the libretto, as compared with prior efforts where he was more deferential to the librettists chosen by the Naples opera management and the corresponding texts. In addition, 19th-century commentary refers to the musical influence of “Il pirata” on the early Richard Wagner opera “Das Liebesverbot.”
Bellini spent 1827 to 1833 mostly in Milan, never holding any official position within an opera company and living solely from the income produced from his compositions, for which he was able to ask higher than usual fees.
Upon his arrival, he met Antonio Villa of La Scala and composer Saverio Mercadante whose new opera, “Il Montanaro” was in rehearsal. The latter introduced him to Francesco and Marianna Pollini (an older couple, the husband a retired professor of piano, the wife a better-than-amateur musician) who immediately took the young man under their wing.
In addition, Bellini was introduced to the librettist Felice Romani, who proposed the subject of the composer’s first project, “Il pirata,” to which the young man willingly agreed, especially after he realised that the story “provided several passionate and dramatic situations …[and] … that such Romantic characters were then an innovation on the operatic stage.” From that time forward, there began a strong professional relationship with Romani; he became Bellini’s primary creative partner, providing the librettos for six of Bellini’s operas which followed, the result being that “no other Italian opera composer of the time showed such an attachment to a single librettist”. Although Romani was known to treat composers poorly, he evidently had great respect for Bellini, even acceding to his requests for revisions. For his part, Bellini admired “the sonorous and elegance of the poet’s verses.”
The collaboration began in May 1827 and, by August, the music was being written. By then, the composer was aware that he was to write music for his favourite tenor Giovanni Battista Rubini and the soprano was to be Henriette Méric-Lalande. Both singers had starred in “Bianca e Fernando” in the original 1826 production. The strong cast also included Antonio Tamburini, a major bass-baritone of the time. But rehearsals did not progress without some difficulties, as both Weinstock and Galatopoulos recount: it appears that Bellini found Rubini, while singing beautifully, to be lacking expressiveness: he was urged to “throw yourself with all your sole into the character you are representing” and to use [your] body, “to accompany your singing with gestures”, as well as to act with [your] voice. But it seems that Bellini’s exhortations bore fruit, based on his own account of the audience’s reactions to the first performance, as well as the reaction of Milan’s Gazzetta priviligiata of December 2, 1827, which noted that this opera “introduced us to Rubini’s dual personality as a singer and actor”. The reviewer continued to declare that this duality had never been expressed in other operas in which he had performed.
The premiere, given on October 17, 1827, was “an immediate and then an increasing, success. By Sunday, December 2, when the season ended, it had been sung to fifteen full houses”. For Rubini, “it marked the defining performance for the tenor”, and the newspaper reviews which followed all agreed with the composer’s own assessment.
After its Milanese debut, the opera received very successful performances in Vienna in February 1828 and also in Naples three months later. Both productions starred Rubini, Tamburini, and—in the role of Imogene—Rubini’s wife, Adelaide Comelli-Rubini, about whom Bellini had initial misgivings, although it appears that she acquitted herself very well. By this time, Bellini had begun to achieve international fame. It was back in Milan in the summer of 1829 for 24 performances. Throughout 1830, the opera was given in Venice (January), Vicenza (summer), Bologna (October), and Trieste in December, then Messina in 1831. When Bellini was in Siciliy in February 1832, it was also given in Messina, and thereafter spread rapidly around Italy.
“Il pirata” was given outside Italy for the first time in February 1828, and Herbert Weinstock notes that its many presentations throughout Europe and North America, it was the first Bellini opera to be heard. These include the first UK performance in April 1830 and the first in the USA in December 1832.
Weinstock recounts that the opera was given on 1 January 1935 in Rome to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the composer’s death. At the Teatro Alla Scala the staging of this opera, in 1958, “became the most notable of modern revivals of ‘Il pirata’ … headed by Maria Meneghini Callas and Franco Corelli.”
In a concert performances, Callas repeated her Imogene at New York’s Carnegie Hall in January 1959.
It was staged by the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino in June 1967 with Montserrat Caballé and, again with Cabellé, both in London in concert form in June 1969 and staged in Cincinnati in the following month. The soprano continued to appear in the role in December 1970 at theGran Teatre del Liceu and recorded it in Rome that year.
The Wexford Festival staged it in January 1973 and it was presented by the Festival della Valle d’Itria in Martina Franca in July 1987. Nello Santi led performances at the Zürich Opera House in September 1992. A video recording exists of a performance in Saint-Etienne in May 1993. Mariella Devia sang the soprano role at the Teatro delle Muse in Ancona in January 2007.
Then, a concert version at Théâtre du Chatelet in Paris on 16 May 2002, at Metropolitan Opera from late October 2002 into Feb 2003.
Place: Sicily
Time: 13th century

Act 1
Scene 1: The seashore near Caldora Castle
On a stormy sea-shore, fishermen watch a ship foundering in a huge storm. They help the crew come ashore and, among the survivors, is Gualtiero, who recognises his old tutor Goffredo, now appearing dressed as a hermit. He explains that he has lost everything. Gualtiero tells him that, in spite of his hatred for his persecutor Ernesto, he drew strength from his continuing love for Imogene. (Aria: Nel furor delle tempeste / “In the fury of the storm / in the slaughter of a pirate’s life / that adored image appears in my thoughts”). When the fisherman arrive to inform both men that the noble lady who lives close by is coming to help the shipwrecked men, Gualtiero is urged to hide himself since he will be alone among enemies. He enters Goffredo’s hut.
It is Imogene who arrives to offer hospitality to the shipwrecked strangers, but Gualtiero does not reveal himself. She tells her companion Adele that she dreamed that he had been killed by her husband. (Aria: Lo sognai ferito, esangue / “My duty is the compassion / that sends me to the aid of strangers”). From what Itulbo has told her about the pirate ship, she assumes that he is dead. When he comes out of the hut, Gualtiero recognises her, but the hermit makes him re-enter. Imogene is urged to return to the castle, but to herself, she imagines that she sees Gualtiero everywhere she looks. (Aria: Sventurata, anch’io deliro / “Hapless one, I too am delirious / obsessed by a vain love”).
Scene 2: The Castle terrace at night
At night, Itulbo warns the strangers not to reveal that they are the pirates who have been pursued by Ernesto. Meanwhile, Imogene is strangely fascinated by the mysterious stranger who enters covered in a cloak. He soon reveals to her who he really is. Gualtiero learns that she had married Ernesto only because he had threatened her father’s life. (Extended duet, first Gualtiero: Pietosa al padre! e meco / eri si cruda intanto! / “Pity for your father! But you / were so cruel to me! / And I, deceived and blind, lived, / lived for you alone!”; then Imogene:Ah! qui d’un padre antico / tu non temasti accanto / “Ah, you never trembled / for an aged father). When Imogene’s ladies bring her son into the room, he is angry and almost removes his dagger from his belt, before handing the boy back. He then leaves.
Scene 3: The Castle grounds
Ernesto and his men celebrate victory over the pirates (Sì, vincemmo, e il pregio io sento / “Yes, we conquered and I feel proud of such a noble victory”), but he is annoyed that Imogene is not celebrating, too, but asks her if she has found out who they are, telling them that he expects to questions the hermit and their leader, who is described by the hermit and introduced to him as their leader, Itulbo. He describes himself as being from Liguria and—upon being questioned—Ernesto recognises that by his dress and accent he is not from the local area. He continues to press Itulbo on the whereabouts of Gualtiero, knowing that pirates have come from Ligurian shores; he is reluctant to accept the group until they can provide greater proof of who they are. Meanwhile, they must remain as prisoners. Beginning with a duet, which initially includes Gualtiero, who declares his readiness to fight, Ernesto somewhat suspicious, Imogene and Adele in anguish, then Goffredo and the women, it extends to include all the principals who express their conflicting emotions, though Goffredo manages to restrain Gualtiero from giving his identity away.
Scene 1: The entrance to Imogene’s apartments
Adele tells Imogene that Gualtiero wishes to see her before he leaves, although she is reluctant but recognises that she must do it. As she is about to leave, Ernesto arrives and accuses Imogene of being unfaithful to him: (Ernesto, aria: Aresta / Ogmor mi fuggi / “Stay! You continually avoid me! Now the time has come for me to have you at my side”; then duet.) She defends herself by saying that her continuing love for Gualtiero is based solely on her remembrance of their past encounters. Ernesto is inclined to take her word for it, but, when a message is delivered in which he is told that Gualtiero is being sheltered in his own castle, he is consumed by rage, demands to know where his enemy is, and then storms out. Imogene follows.
Scene 2: The Castle terrace
Gualtiero and Itulbo meet on the terrace at daybreak, the latter encouraging him to flee with all his men. But Gualtiero stands firm and, as Italbo leaves, Imogene comes onto the terrace. She urges him to be brief, to leave immediately, but he tries to comfort her before they part (Aria: Per noi tranquillo un porta / l’immenson mare avrà / “For us the vast sea / will have a calm port”) at the same time as he urges her to come with him to the safety of one of his two ships which have arrived. But she tries to leave, encouraging him to forgive and forget. Their acceptance of the situation alternates with passionate declarations of love, and Ernesto, arriving, conceals himself and overhears the end of their duet. AS the couple part, Ernesto reveals himself, but Imogene rushes between them, trying to convince Gualtiero to flee. Defiant, he ignores her, proclaiming to Ernesto that his thirst for his blood has not diminished over ten years. The two men demand blood and, in a trio finale as they exit, they continue in this vein while Imogene pleads that they kill her. The two men depart to fight, and Imogene follows.
Scene 3: The courtyard of the Castle
A funeral march is heard as Ernesto’s knights enter followed by Adele and the ladies. All grieve over Ernesto’s death at the hands of “a traitor, a vile pirate”. Gualtiero, to the amazement of Ernesto’s retainers, gives himself up to the knights and, as he is taken away, he prays that Imogene may forgive him (Tu vedrai la sventurata / “You will see the unhappy lady / whom I caused so many tears / and tell her if I wronged her / I also knew how to avenge her”). She appears in a state of anguish and sees visions of her dead husband and her son (Col sorriso d’innocenza … Oh sole, ti vela di tenebre oscure / “With the smile of innocence / with the glance of love / pray speak to your father of clemency and pardon”). Meanwhile, from the Council chamber, the Knights condemn Gualtiero to death and, as the scaffold is erected, Imogene is raving: (Finale: Oh, sole! ti vela / “Oh sun, veil yourself / in darkest gloom / hide the cruel axe / from my sight”). Her ladies lead Imogene from the courtyard.
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