Opéra National de Paris – Bellini’s Beatrice di Tenda – Tamara Wilson, Quinn Kelsey & Pene Pati; directed by Peter Sellars; conducted by Mark Wigglesworth

Bellini
Beatrice di Tenda – Opera in two Acts to a libretto by Felice Romani after the play by Carlo Tedaldi Fores [sung in Italian with French and English surtitles]

Beatrice di Tenda – Tamara Wilson
Filippo Visconti – Quinn Kelsey
Agnese del Maino – Theresa Kronthaler
Orombello – Pene Pati
Anichino – Amitai Pati
Rizzard del Maino – Taesung Lee

Chorus & Orchestra of Paris Opera
Mark Wigglesworth

Peter Sellars – Director
George Tsypin – Sets
Camille Assaf – Costume designer
James F. Ingalls – Lighting


Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 2 March, 2024
Venue: Opéra Bastille, Place de la Bastille, Paris

Peter Sellars came to wide public attention – at least outside of his native America – through his involvement with John Adams’s Death of Klinghofer, about terrorism in the Middle East, and particularly in the United Kingdom with his staging of Handel’s oratorio Theodora for Glyndebourne, setting that story of an early Christian saint’s martyrdom as an instance of capital punishment within a present day, totalitarian America. In his first foray into Italian opera – and Paris Opera’s first ever staging of Bellini’s penultimate work Beatrice di Tenda (1833) – he returns to an uncompromising examination of torture and violence, sanctioned by official authority.  

Such a production is timely for the comment it makes upon the situation in the world at large today: against the backdrop of Ukraine and Gaza it’s all the more prescient, and Sellars can hardly be accused of opportunism, seeing that plans for this production will have begun well before the outbreak of trouble in the latter last autumn, and quite probably even the war in Ukraine – certainly before the news of atrocities which have occurred there since it began. Although his programme note is not quite right to say that the work was never successful, like so many bel canto o00peras it fell out of the repertoire in the later 19th century. But it has never really regained a place on the stage, unlike the composer’s Norma for example, or even Donizetti’s breakthrough opera, Anna Bolena (1830) which Bellini and his librettist feared was too similar and with which their work might be compared unfavourably (despite Romani having written that libretto himself). 

Sellars’s interpretation justifies mounting a work whose assumptions about society and interpersonal relations no longer chime with those of today – Beatrice is a tragic Romantic heroine, an almost infinitely forbearing and obedient woman who willingly pays the ultimate price when doubt is unfairly cast upon her marital virtue. The historical figure Beatrice Lascaris di Tenda married Filippo Visconti, the Duke of Milan, in the 1410s, following the death of her first husband, the condottiero Facino Cane. Owing to the latter’s campaigns around Milan, she brought with her much wealth, territory and prestige, which benefited Filippo. Both came to rue their marriage however, he becomes jealous of the popularity which Beatrice courted with the factions who still supported Cane, and probably resentful of owing his prominence in large part to the resources she brought rather than to his own achievements, and of the fact that she had not produced any children. Trumped up charges of adultery were made, resulting in her execution in 1418, along with the troubadour, Michele Orombelli, her supposed paramour.

The opera’s scenario (based on an earlier play) follows history quite closely but complicates the details by having Filippo exercise an amorous interest in a mistress (Agnese) although historically she was too young at this point. That adaptation provides much of the dramatic tension which drives the work, since Agnese herself loves Orombelli, and vengefully accuses him and Beatrice when she finds out that he is smitten with the latter rather than her. The troubadour also becomes Orombello, Lord of Ventimiglia, and so a character of comparable social standing. In turn, Sellars develops the scenario such that Filippo isn’t so much of an outward bully (at least initially) but a man psychologically torn apart by jealousy, inferiority, and menacing suspicions, which have made for an unhappy marriage. Sellars also doesn’t go along with the implied misogyny of the original scenario whereby Beatrice is entirely guiltless and only deemed worthy as a heroine by being held to an improbably high standard that would never be expected of men. But he does allow that, in this arid domestic context, she understandably harbours some feelings for Orombello, imaging a different, better existence.

George Tsypin’s set evokes something of the opera’s intended scene in a mediaeval castle or palace, with its enclosed garden in which Beatrice takes refuge. But it is cleverly adapted to create the atmosphere of a contemporary dystopia, the arcaded walls of the castle presented as metal grilles like a prison, and the garden also comprising metal trellis-work in the shapes of a parterre, somewhat alarmingly illumined in green, rather than natural vegetation. To underline Filippo’s tyrannical, overbearing power, CCTV cameras are installed by his henchman during the brief Overture to keep an eye on Beatrice and her activities.

To that end, Sellars also makes effective use of space. In the first scene the chorus of Filippo’s courtiers stand offstage but are heard, and only revealed as shadowy figures amidst the arches of the set when illumined – it’s as though, here, the walls have ears and do speak. Later in Act Two, as Filippo vacillates between guilty retraction of his death warrant upon Beatrice and Orombello, and murderous fury, the chorus sinisterly remind him of his prerogative of the power of life and death over them, but from behind the scenes, as if they are voices in his head. When he agonises further over whether to release them from prison, the chorus urge him to action, unseen from high up in the auditorium, thereby also implicating us, the audience, from behind, in the decision he has to make. Agnese first appears on a projection high up from the walls (she is meant to be offstage in the original directions); but whereas, ordinarily, that might imply some romantic notion of tantalising amorous unavailability, like Juliet in her balcony, here her positioning takes its part as one of the overbearing forces attempting to rein in Beatrice and Orombello claustrophobically. Those insidious forces are unleashed in Act Two when Orombello and then Beatrice are brought on after having been tortured, bloodied and maimed, perhaps drawing a connection with Shakespeare’s Lavinia in Titus Andronicus. Despite their impending executions, they remain defiant to the end.

The performances match the thoughtful intensity of the production. It is not an opera which especially calls for great volleys of coloratura brilliance in the title role (disappointed audiences at its Venice premiere called for “Norma, Norma!” in that respect). But Tamara Wilson gives a superbly assured account of music which requires expert control in expressing the character’s resilience alongside a sense of vulnerability. The long-breathed melodies of her first aria were rightly entrancing, with subtle choral backing – in fact rather like ‘Casta diva’ after all – and marked with a Mozartian touch in its refined woodwind pointing. At the end of Act One Wilson exudes just as much confidence, without pressing the aria at full throttle, reserving such ardour for the very last number as she faces death. Quinn Kelsey’s Filippo is a deeply considered depiction, thoroughly troubled by his anxieties which Kelsey articulates with a compelling inwardness and frustration.

Pene Pati sings lustrously as Orombello, appropriately as the character whose historical basis was as a troubadour, and a trace of that is preserved in the production with Pati’s appearing with a guitar as though articulating the harp accompaniment to Agnese’s song himself. His voice certainly soars, but it is intelligently moderated so as not to become improbably triumphant and unrestrained in this tragic story. Theresa Kronthaler expresses solid resolve as the scheming Agnese, taking on a wild, desperate turn as she confronts the horror of what her accusation has led to. More than serviceable performances by Amitai Pati and Taesung Lee complete the solo cast.

Mark Wigglesworth leads the Orchestra and Chorus of Paris Opera in a remarkably atmospheric reading of the work. He cultivates a penumbral and serious mood by never rushing the music, but nor does tension ever lapse. That is achieved partly by careful attention to the instrumental sonorities of the score (Bellini perhaps the most imaginative and varied orchestrator of the bel canto masters) such as the wondrously mellow horn accompaniment to Beatrice’s aria towards the end of Act One. But musical effects are harnessed not just for their own sake but to heighten or extend the drama, to take a small example in daring to draw the chorus back from their jaunty ebullience at times into something more disquietingly cautious and to prolong some pauses meaningfully, creating an aura of conspiracy. Altogether, production and performance ably demonstrate that this is an opera which should be much better known than it is, compared with the two or three others alone by Bellini which are generally ever encountered on the stage now.

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