Vincenzo Bellini: Il Pirata (1827)

Opera in two acts. Running Time: 2 hours 10 minutes.


I started this review a year ago and scheduled it for the exact minute I was born. The only interesting thing about that is that my birthday this year falls on the same weekday it was when I was born, which doesn’t happen often. So, why not celebrate with a Bellini opera! The video (Not LINK the VIDEO!) follows the review. This opera is very interesting in that the chorus follows around all of the soloists (all of the arias at some point involve choral interaction).

PLOT: Sicily, 13th century. Backstory: Gualtiero, Count of Montaldo, and Ernesto, Duke of Caldora, both love Imogene and are supporters of rival factions for the Sicilian throne: Manfred and Charles d’Anjou. The French win, Gualtiero is driven to piracy, and Imogene is blackmailed into marrying Ernesto in order to save her father (who was a supporter of Manfred). About five years later Gualtiero and one of his ships are wrecked off the coast of the Caldora estate. Imogene, following the custom of her marital family, offers them hospitality until it is revealed that they are the very same pirates her husband has been looking for.


0: The overture starts off with a jolly little tune that is repeated and then some less jolly music followed by a, well I don’t know what exactly to call it but it is all energetic *. There is one main theme (which is repeated twice) and the finish avoids a Rossinian crescendo.

ACT 1: (70 minutes)

Scene 1: The seashore near Caldora Castle.

6, 10: A stormy opening **, perhaps not quite to the level of Verdi’s Otello but for the late-1820s this will definitely do! The storm calms to a lovely melody in the woodwinds as the chorus prayers **.

13, 16, 19, 21: A dark recitative * (notice the lower strings, effects in the low strings abound in this opera providing the work with a dark overall hue in spite of a large number of presto tunes) in which Gualtiero survives a shipwreck resulting from the storm and meets his old tutor Goffredo, who is now apparently a monk (?). Gualtiero admits in a cavatina ** that in spite of his hatred of Ernesto (the present occupant of his castle) he was sustained by his love for Imogene. Fishermen arrive saying that the noblewoman who lives in the near by estate is coming to offer hospitality to the shipwrecked survivors. Their chorus is very interesting ** and Gualtiero finishes with a vocally complex if orchestrally lumbering cabaletta **.

22, 27: What follows is the most awesome prima donna entrance of the 1820s *** as the noblewoman comes on searching for survivors to be hospitable to. Gualtiero realizes that it is Imogene, but he hides himself in Goffredo’s hut which conveniently happens to be on the beach. She learns from Gualtiero’s second in command, Itulbo, that Gualtiero has apparently died in the wreck. Her cantabile is nice, but a little deconstructed (is that the right word?) *, the cabaletta is just standard as she fantasizes that she sees Gualtiero in the face of everyone she sees.

Scene 2: The castle terrace, night.

34: A male presto chorus *: Itulbo warns the men not to reveal that they are in fact the pirate crew that Ernesto has been hunting.

36: Imogene and her maid Adele discuss a horrible dream the former has had in which Ernesto kills Gualtiero * (this is as inaccurate as it is stupid given that she thinks Gualtiero is already dead). I will admit to barely noticing this.

41, 46, 50: The Imogene-Gualtiero duet starts off with a lot of rather dull recitative but it eventually warms up * on a bit of arioso from Imogene only to soften again and then Gualtiero takes up a main tune which limps about. It isn’t terrible, but it could have more cohesion. He learns a lot from her: her father was threatened with death by Ernesto, hence she married him and bore his son under duress. Eventually things get more serious, and a sustained pianissimo theme develops in the strings ** during the cantabile. The child is brought in and Gualtiero contemplates murdering him right then and there but Imogene begs him (after all, he is Imogene’s son as much as he is Ernesto’s).  The duet ends in an at first sedate cabaletta which eventually speeds up a little to a good finish **.

Scene 3: The castle grounds.

52, 54: Watch out for the double basses in the entr’acte **, very dark and it would be a good contrast to the jovial chorus of Ernesto and his men (believing they have defeated the pirates) if not for the fact that it stays for the entire number **.

55, 64: A rather good cantabile for Ernesto as he revels in his triumph **, it finishes simply. Ernesto asks Imogene why she does not celebrate. He reveals to her that he plans on questioning the hermit Goffedo as Itulbo is brought in and is questioned as to his origins: he answers truthfully that he is from Liguria but Ernesto remains suspicious and orders that the shipwrecked men remain as prisoners, this eventually moves into yet another cantabile (this time in largo agitato) **. Eventually Goffedo and the female chorus plead for the prisoners (they fail).

68: The stretta *** in which Goffedo is able to stop Gualtiero from revealing his true identity to Ernesto.

ACT 2 (60 minutes)

Scene 1: The entrance of Imogene’s apartments.

0: The act opens with a tuneful and gentle chorus of ladies-in-waiting **. Adele tells Imogene that Gualtiero wishes to speak to her before he leaves. Ernesto shows up and accuses his wife of adultery.

8: Ernesto’s jealousy comes out in what is at first an aria but becomes a duet with Imogene *** as she explains that her love for Gualtiero (whom Ernesto doesn’t even know is in his own castle), is based entirely on the past. He is inclined to believe her, but Adele arrives with a message that Gualtiero is actually in the castle and Ernesto runs off in anger.

Scene 2: The battlements

20, 22, 25, 30: Gualtiero encounters Itulbo who tells him to flee because Ernesto is on to him, but refuses. Itulbo goes and Imogene comes on telling him much the same thing, but instead he begs her to come with him on one of his two ships that have arrived to take him away. At first a Mozartean-style aria **, it turns into a duet * of much the same tune and eventually into a trio *** when Ernesto arrives and Gualtiero reveals his true identity. In the stretta the two men challenge each other to a duel and Imogene begs them to kill her instead ** (which I’m not sure would either solve the problem or just make more problems).

Scene 3: The courtyard of the castle.

31: Rather quickly (perhaps too quickly) we come upon a bizarrely hyper funeral chorus * for Ernesto.

36, 41: Adele recognizes Gualtiero (who has obviously killed Ernesto). He surrenders himself to Ernesto’s courtiers for trial **. Watch out for a modified repeat of the entrance music that accompanied Imogene in act 1 just before Gualtiero embarks on a sedate but good cabaletta *. He finishes well at least before he is taken away to the court.

43, 51, 54, 56: Now, at last, we enter into what everyone has been waiting for: the seven part prima donna aria and finale. First: a prelude featuring cor anglais *** followed by another dark and this time also agitated recitative and some Mickey-mousing from the strings. At last, after minutes of recitative Imogene’s aria *** is as placid as Schubert’s Ave Maria. She overhears the verdict: gongs, Gualtiero is to be hanged for murder. She reacts to this in a mad cabaletta * and has to be taken away from the scene by her ladies. Curtain.



Il Pirata is the standard operatic love triangle, and in fact the plot sometimes feels like it is just heading towards a fatalistically inevitable dramatic conclusion. What makes it somewhat different is that neither of the two males are actually evil, or at least neither is really worse than the other, and the female protagonist is both strong and well drawn. The three secondary characters, especially Goffredo (who only appears in act one but could have been a much more interesting character) and Adele (the nondescript companion role), feel a little tacked on, not so much Itulbo because he provides some plot information. The piracy element isn’t at Penzance level, really it factors little into the overall narrative except to provide backstory and excuses for a number of sea related themes (the storm and shipwreck, the Ligurian origin of the crew, the rescue ships). Gualtiero could be a bandit, or even just Imogene’s long lost lover, and the resolution really wouldn’t be much different because the personal motivations far outweigh the political ones. Perhaps it would make more sense if the original finale were reinserted in which Gualtiero’s men come to rescue him from execution, but he refuses to rejoin them and commits suicide. Musically the opera is mixed, amazing numbers are side-by-side with the humdrum. Nothing is ever terrible though, although I am a little grateful that the four recitative “scene” between Imogene and Adele have been cut to a minimum here. A-.

9 responses to “Vincenzo Bellini: Il Pirata (1827)”

  1. Happy birthday, Phil!


  2. Thank you! But what do you think of the opera?


    1. Pretty standard Italian bel canto – conventional plot, but some good tunes. I particularly like Gualtiero’s “Nel furor delle tempeste”. My review here:


      1. I will take a look at your post. I hope things work out with your technology. I’m working on Henry VIII over the weekend.


      2. Saint-Saens’ best opera!


      3. Which birthday, by the way?


      4. Too many years, although I probably shouldn’t be worried until l hit 30. And yes, I’ve heard Henry VIII before, it is Saint-Saens’ best. I am working through it very, very slowly (I’ve repeated the first 15 minutes three times) so it probably won’t be finished until some point on Sunday.


      5. Your 30s – when you hit them – are the prime of your life!

        Have you seen the DVD of Henry VIII? Like children, it’s best seen, not heard;

        It’s hard to judge Fervaal when large chunks of it are missing (the prologue, the second half of Act I, the middle of Act II) – but what there is, isn’t convincing. A heated love duet à la Tristan, where they sing abstractions. A noisy, bombastic Act II. Like Sigurd, but nowhere near as good.


      6. I’ve seen the DVD already, this will be my “review” viewing. I’ve seen Henry VIII from beginning to end at least once before so the warning is too late.

        Sorry Fervaal is such a disaster (or not seeing it’s D’Indy).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: