Opera in two acts. Running Time 2 hours 22 minutes. Bellini’s penultimate opera, written between his masterpieces Norma and I Puritani, Beatrice is probably one of his three or four least known operas. It is a brutal story of spousal abuse, political power grabs, jealousy and murder. The featured image is an 1845 painting of Beatrice and Orombello by Palagio Palagi.
STORY: A castle near Milan, 1418. Beatrice (soprano), the widow of the Count of Binasco, has remarried to Filippo Visconti (baritone) the Duke of Milan, and her marriage has become a nightmare. Meanwhile, Filippo is after Agnese (mezzo-soprano) who is after Orombello (tenor) who is in love with Beatrice! Confused yet? Remember this isn’t a romantic comedy, or either of those two things and by the end it will be utterly depressing.
The review below has been updated to fit the 2011 Zurich production DVD with Edita Gruberova.
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1: (80 minutes)
Scene 1: A Courtyard in the castle.
9: Ah! Non pensar che pieno The brief overture (3 minutes) starts with a modern sounding theme, sort of like in Magnard’s Berenice, it reappears during the act two trial scene to great effect, otherwise it is rather uneventful floating. There really isn’t much that goes on musically until we hear Agnese’s off-stage song about how life is empty without love to a harp accompaniment *. In terms of plot, though, a lot happens. Beatrice’s husband Filippo returns early from a ball and his courtiers remark that his wife is more powerful than he is and that if he doesn’t seize power soon that his wife’s friends might kill him. He has a brief and rather dull little aria before the scene ends. Agnese is his latest attempted conquest, and he isn’t getting very far. He is also bored of his life and of his marriage to Beatrice. Bellini, and me, seem to be bored with him already. The scene also doesn’t end with an obvious scene change.
Scene 2: Agnese’s chambers.
26: La sua vita? Ma la sola, ohime! This scene mostly consists of sub-standard recitative and rather standard bel canto duetting with Agnese entertaining a young man (Orombello) who she had recently sent a letter to thinking he loves her. He confides that he is in love, but with Beatrice! She flips out, he pleads with her for mercy rather agreeably. In the last three minutes it rises to the level of * and is effective enough but that is after seven or eight minutes of workmanlike recitative that forwards this seemingly strange aspect of the narrative, at least for now it seems strange.
Scene 3: Beatrice’s private gardens.
31: Come ogni cosa A nice prelude, a bit of flute solo too, introduces Beatrice coming on looking of a little “me” time with her ladies. They sing a nice chorus, with a rousing and unexpected climax **.
35: Ma la sola, oimė! Beatrice’s aria is a minor league Casta Diva rehash, but it gains momentum **, especially towards the end. She is frustrated over Filippo and ashamed of him and her marriage to him. She is a flower that has been cut at the stem and is now withering away to death. Her ladies join in her grief.
46: Odio e livore, ingrato! Filippo comes on and accuses Beatrice of being unfaithful (typical). Her only response to him is that if he can not love, could he not at least respect her? He admits to being jealous of her power (after all, his title as Duke is dependent on his marriage to her, he is the consort). There are a few passages over the next ten minutes of the scene (watch for ascending scales), that are rather good **. This third scene in general is more interesting musically than the first two.
Scene 4: Another room in the castle, a statue of Beatrice’s first husband present.
63, 68: Deh! se mi amasti un giorno/La mia fama After a whirlwind prelude, the soldiers are searching for Orombello (apparently Filippo already knows from Agnese about him and his unrequited love for Beatrice). This chorus has a rather idiotic melodic tinge to it. Beatrice comes on and has a nice chat with her dead first husband thinking of formerly better days **. During the conspiratorial duet with Orombello (in which she rejects both his planned palace coup and his ardent passion for her) Beatrice’s vocal line includes a fragment of Elvira’s act 2 aria in I Puritani “Vien, diletto, è in ciel la luna” *, but is otherwise uneventful unfortunately.
72: Sì: d’immenso, estremo affetto Filippo arrives with Agnese and everyone thinks that Beatrice has just been caught in a rendez-vous with her lover and worse yet that the two are plotting treason. The first part of the finale starts nice and quietly emotive with the love-square in semi-unison ** and the male chorus of soldiers laying low. The second part starts off a bit more excitedly, but even with Beatrice going off like a rocket on the high notes and the chorus bombing out militantly, the two stars from the top will have to make due. The pending trial for adultery just smells a little bit too much of Anna Bolena.
ACT 2: (62 minutes)
Scene 1: Gallery in the castle set up for a tribunal.
0: Lassa! e può il ciel permettere Serious music follows into a female chorus, then male chorus. Hints of the beginning of Act 2 of La Straniera or La sonnambula? Not bad though *. From this we learn that Orombello has been brutally tortured by Filippo and falsely confessed to being Beatrice’s lover, thus implicating her of adultery. The music is very close to what I want it to be dramatically, but it just doesn’t finally satisfy. Suddenly there is a weirdly jolly march tune, and Orombello’s friend Anichino pleads mercy for Beatrice. Agnese anticipates her revenge, but is troubled by the confession. Filippo addresses the tribunal. Beatrice has lost the will to live. She confronts Orombello, who is extremely remorseful over his false confession.
16: Io soffrir Orombello’s admission before everyone that Beatrice is innocent is incredibly dramatic and finally the opera starts to border into more advanced territory dramatically ***. The opening melody from the overture returns to give more momentum, and she forgives him graciously.
20: Al tuo fallo ammenda festi Filippo, thinking over everything, leads to a melodious ensemble that completely lifts the opera out of the mundane and into opera in glorious technicolour *** with all six of the soloists, chorus and orchestra finally reaching amazing dramatic heights! The scene is also dramatically rich enough to warrant music like this as the accused couple and the court are dismissed. Altogether, eleven amazing minutes overall.
34: Qui mi accolse oppresso Agnese sorrowfully confronts Filippo alone with their actions, confessing her own complicity and deceit in framing Beatrice and Orombello and pleading with him to drop the charges against them. Ordering her out, he confesses to himself that although he has never felt remorse (the character is obviously psychopathic) and doesn’t even now, he is gripped by terror over this situation. Anichino arrives declaring that although Beatrice has not broken down under torture, the court has sentenced both she and Orombello to death and it is up to Filippo to sign the warrants. Filippo is reluctant to sign the death warrants and remembers the love he had once shared with Beatrice. He decides to spare her. This is the fourth time in just this scene that he has changed his mind over this one situation! Meanwhile, the courtiers come on and remind him that if Beatrice lives, her supporters and those of her first husband will continue to threaten him. So again he changes his mind and signs the execution order, spending the rest of the scene trying to justify this new turn of his *.
Scene 2: The prison, Beatrice’s cell, near by that of Orombello.
40: Prega! Ah, non sia la misera The prelude is grim, but of course we are in prison. The chorus of Beatrice’s ladies are supported by male supporters of the Duchess, all mourning the horrible turn of events **. Beatrice declares that she has said nothing. Agnese begs forgiveness from Beatrice. Needless to say, Beatrice has difficulties with this.
48: Angiol di pace, all’anima Suddenly we have a harp and Orombello can be angelically heard forgiving Agnese from his cell (or is he already dead, dunno?) In any case it is utterly beautiful ***. Beatrice joins him.
53: Deh! Se un’urna è a me concessa Beatrice dismisses Agnese and declares that she is ready to die. It is finale time and Bellini does not disappoint here **. The beginning is better than the middle, but the last two minutes or so make up for this and Beatrice is giving us the triumphant high notes that seem so ironic coming from an innocent woman about to be executed.
Beatrice di Tenda is a real mess. Bizarrely, the opera is extremely narrowed in its focus, there is only one narrative going on and it runs rapidly to its tragic conclusion, and yet it is shockingly fragmented to an alarming scale. The first act, unlike the second, suffers from starting off rather ineptly musically and takes close to half an hour to warm up by which time half the plot has already been revealed. Holding off Beatrice’s entrance to approximately the same point as Norma’s is equally obvious. Also, the plot, no matter how wonderful the music is, is continuously and unrelentingly, horrifyingly awful on an unprecedented scale. I don’t know of any other opera (involving such good music as found in the second act here) that is saddled to such a miserable and episodically fragmentary storyline. Gemma di Vergy is equally if not more gory, and has only slightly better music in spots, but is not remotely so episodic and fragmentary. The characters, other than Beatrice herself, are rather hard to like, except maybe for Orombello in the final scene and Agnese after she pleads for forgiveness and mercy on the non-lovers. Filippo is totally unredeemable and his continuous changes of mind in Act 2 Scene 1 defy even operatic logic. Also, Bellini seems to have gained zero inspiration from him as a character, and his music is boring at best. Agnese’s jealous is not a strong enough motivation for what happens to Orombello and Beatrice, and the former of the two is rather an idiot, especially in act 1. It is only when he asks forgiveness of Beatrice for confessing under torture that he actually matures finally. However, his motivations in act 1 for the palace coup are rather vague and very, very sudden, and somewhat shocking. Also, what is the purpose of Agnese as a character? I mean, she does little that Filippo could not have done on his own, her jealously is rather illogical and why exactly is she set up in Beatrice’s castle because I don’t think she is actually Filippo’s mistress, especially not if she is off trying to seduce Orombello, who is in love with Beatrice, who… oh whatever! And yet, and yet, some of the music in the courtroom scene in act 2, and when Orombello and Beatrice’s forgiveness of Agnese in the prison scene, is so musically lovely that I have to compromise here and give Beatrice a solid B no less, but certainly no more.