Opera in two acts. Running Time 2 hours 12 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. This recording as Joan Sutherland in the title role and a then twenty-something Raina Kabaivanska as Agnese. The featured image is an 1845 painting of Beatrice and Orombello by Palagio Palagi.
STORY: A castle near Milan, 1418. Beatrice, the widow of the Count of Binasco, has remarried to Filippo Visconti the Duke of Milan, and her marriage has become a nightmare. Meanwhile, Filippo is after Agnese who is after Orombello 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.
ACT 1: (75 minutes)
Scene 1: A Courtyard in the castle.
8: The brief overture (3 minutes) starts with a modern sounding theme, sort of like in Magnard’s Berenice, otherwise it is rather uneventful floating. There really isn’t much that goes on musically until we hear Agnese’s 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. The scene also doesn’t end with an obvious scene change.
Scene 2: Agnese’s chambers.
14: 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. By the end it rises to the level of * but that is after seven or eight minutes of workmanlike plotting that forwards this seemingly strange aspect of the narrative, at least for now.
Scene 3: Beatrice’s private gardens.
27: A nice prelude, a bit of flute solo too. Beatrice comes on looking of a little “me” time with her ladies. They sing a nice chorus, with rousing climaxes **.
36: Beatrice’s aria is a minor league Casta Diva rehash, but not terrible **, 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.
39: 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 here, watch for ascending scales, that are rather good **. This 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.
56: 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 **.
62: Notice here that Beatrice’s vocal line includes a fragment of Elvira’s act 2 aria in I Puritani “Vien, diletto, è in ciel la luna” *. The duet with Orombello, in which he tells her of his planned palace coup, which she rejects, and that his previous feelings of compassion for her have turned to love, is okay.
65: 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 finale starts nice and quietly emotive with the two women in semi-unison * and the male chorus of soldiers laying low as the four male soloists rattle around.
71: The second part starts off a bit more excitedly, but even with Beatrice (or rather Joan) going off like a rocket with the high notes and the chorus bombing out militantly it only just barely makes it into a **. The pending trial for adultery just smells a little bit too much of Anna Bolena.
ACT 2: (57 minutes)
Scene 1: Gallery in the castle set up for a tribunal.
0: 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.
7: Suddenly there is a weirdly jolly march tune, and Orombello’s friend Anichino pleads for mercy for Beatrice and 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.
16.30: Orombello’s admission before everyone that Beatrice is innocent is incredibly dramatic and finally the opera starts to border into more advanced territory dramatically ***. She forgives him.
20: Filippo’s aria to himself, thinking over everything ***, it 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.
26.30: 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 he has never felt remorse and doesn’t even now, but 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 dead and it is up to Filippo to sign the death warrants.
33: 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! 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. Although this number is not up to the same level as the middle of the scene, it is still **.
Scene 2: The prison, Beatrice’s cell, near by that of Orombello.
38.30: 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 **.
41.30: Beatrice speaks, or rather sings that she has said nothing.
44: Agnese screams upon arrival and begs forgiveness from Beatrice.
45: 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.
49: 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 though 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.
Okay, so what I said about Capuleti three months ago, scratch that. Beatrice di Tenda is a real mess. The first act is the most episodic jumble ever and any one of the first three scenes could be dropped without too much difficulty in following the rest of the storyline. However, 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 in the famous namesake score is equally obvious. Also, the plot, no matter how wonderful the music is, is continuously and unrelentingly, horrifyingly awful on an unprecedented scale. It is really, really bad, 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. 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 Orombello and Beatrice’s forgiveness of Agnese scene is so musically lovely that I have to compromise here and give Beatrice a solid B no less, but certainly no more.