Review: Il Pirata

On Tuesday, my wife and I went to see (and hear) Il Pirata (The Pirate) at Teatro Massimo in Palermo. I mention it because reviewing an opera has much in common with a book review. Teatro Massimo is the largest opera house in Italy

and the third largest in Europe, and as one would expect, it is not lacking in grandeur. Above the stalls there are six levels of boxes!

Il Pirata was written by Vincenzo Bellini, who was a Sicilian, but the premiere of the opera was in 1827 in Milan, because Teatro Massimo was built between 1875 and 1897.

The libretto was written in Italian by Felice Romani – with considerable involvement of Bellini – based on a three-act French melodrama, which, in turn was based on a five-act French play. The opera, however, is in two acts.

For those of you opera fans, the cast we heard was:

Gautiero: Giorgio Misseri

Imogene: Marta Torbidoni

Ernesto: Francesco Vultaggio

Rubini as Gualtiero-IL PIRATA -Oct 1827.jpg
Rubini as Gaultiero in 1827

Synopsis: The pirate captain Gaultiero is shipwrecked on the territory of the Duke, Ernesto, having lost a sea battle to his old enemy the duke. Gaultiero, unaware of where he has landed, confesses his love for Imogene, who, ten years earlier, unbeknown to Gaultiero, became the duke’s wife under duress. Imogene comes to offer hospitality to the shipwrecked sailors. Gaultiero recognises her, but she does not recognise him, singing instead of her love for him. That night Gaultiero reveals his identity to Imogene and she explains that she married the duke to save her father from threatened death. Ernesto becomes suspicious of the identity of the pirate leader because of his wife’s apparent interest in him. Gaultiero manages to meet Imogene before he is permitted to depart, but he refuses to leave without Imogene, who urges him to forgive and forget. Ernesto overhears their duet and challenges his rival to a duel Ernesto is killed in the duel and the duke’s knights sentence Gaultiero to death for murder. As Gaultiero is executed Imogene seems to lose her mind.

This opera is packed with intense emotions: love and hate. The music fully supports those emotions, and while in my opinion it does not achieve the standard of Giuseppe Verdi, it is certainly very good. The voices of the three principal characters were first rate. The libretto, which was projected above the stage in both Italian and English, left out – for me – an important consideration: how did Gaultiero become a pirate? And, what’s to love about a pirate?

(As an aside, the Italian of the libretto is hardly recognisable. My wife, who is Italian, said she had to read the English version to understand what was happening. The Italian language has changed greatly in the last two hundred years.)

Fiction writers have been told: “Show, don’t Tell!”. In opera, generally, and in this one in particular there is a lot of showing: in the demonstrative body language used by the characters – the acting was excellent – and in the powerful orchestral music. This showing reinforced the emotive language of the libretto.

Two essentials of fiction were missing from this opera: a setting, and in-depth characterisation. The ‘sets’ were extremely minimal. There were only two scenes; one for each act, instead of the six scenes in the libretto. One didn’t have the feeling if ‘being there’. The costumes were late 20th century street wear, in some cases altered to show the effect of shipwreck and battle. Imogene didn’t resemble a duchess, and Gaultiero didn’t look much like a pirate. I’m sure these omissions represented real savings for the producers, particularly as the opera was staged for only three nights.

Still, it was a very enjoyable evening.

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