Opera seria in 2 acts
Libretto: Felice Romani
First performed: La Scala, Milan, 27 October 1827
Di mia vendetta ho pieno il mondo…
Ma indarno. Il vile Ernesto,
Il mio persecutor, vive ed esulta
Dell’ingiusto mio bando e di mie pene…
Pirates! Who doesn’t love a good pirate story? Wooden-legged men, cursed treasure, talking parrots, the Black Spot, battles at sea, and murderous rogues who set their beards on fire…
None of them are here.
We’re not yet in the Golden Age of Piracy; this is Sicily in the 13th century, and the pirate – Gualtiero by name – is a ruined Sicilian nobleman. (Who ever heard of a pirate called Walter? Pirates have proper pirate-y names like Captain Blood.)
Gualtiero, former Count of Montaldo, backed the wrong side in a war between King Manfredi and the house of Anjou. Ernesto, Duke of Caldora, defeated him in battle; the victorious Angevins banished him from Sicily; and he became leader of a band of pirates. Gualtiero vowed to wreak bloody revenge on his enemies.
Ten years later, Gualtiero’s fleet is destroyed in a sea battle off the Sicilian coast. The opera begins in the aftermath.
While a storm rages overhead, the survivors row for the shore. A chorus prays for their safety, and helps them to reach land. (Verdi, more than half a century later, remembered this powerful scene when he wrote Otello.)
Gualtiero is among the survivors. He tells his former tutor, now a hermit, that only his love for Imogene has sustained him over the last decade.
Unfortunately for him, Imogene has married Ernesto, his mortal enemy. She may be Duchess of Caldora, but she still loves Gualtiero. (Where would Italian opera be without a romantic triangle?)
Imogene arrives to help the survivors. She’s afraid that Gualtiero might be dead; she’s had visions of seeing a bleeding corpse on a barren, deserted strand, but all nature is deaf to her tears and sorrow. The mariners tell her that they’re innocent shipwrecked sailors (and certainly not bloodthirsty murdering pirates with peg legs and a parrot on each shoulder). She invites the survivors to the castle, where they drink and make merry – rather than slaughtering everyone in the castle.
Only Gualtiero seems to have some idea of the proper behavior for a pirate. He confronts Imogene, who tells him that Ernesto imprisoned her father and forced her to marry him.
Bah, says Gualtiero! He whips out his cutlass and threatens to slice Imogene’s son in two – but he’s moved by her tears. (He’s a softy at heart.)
Ernesto, Imogene’s villainous husband, arrives with his men – and he isn’t pleased to learn that his wife’s filled the castle with strange men. Could they, he wonders, be pirates? He interrogates Itulbo, Gualtiero’s lieutenant. No, sir – (arrrr Jim lad, pieces o’ eight, pieces o’ eight) – no pirates here. Ernesto isn’t convinced. He threatens to lock them up until they can prove their bona fides, but Imogene persuades him to let them go. Gualtiero, though, demands that the two former lovers meet, and threatens to kill her family unless she consents. “This will be the last night for you, your husband, and your son!” Imogene collapses.
This is Italian opera, so everybody ends miserably, but they sing beautifully. Ernesto’s an unfeeling husband; he thinks Imogene’s sickness is only shamming. (What can you expect from a husband whose idea of proposal is to throw his beloved’s father into a dungeon?) More, he thinks she’s cheating on him – she loves Gualtiero! Imogene reminds him that when she married him she loved Gualtiero, but she only loves Gualtiero’s memory. (Something about threatening twice to kill her family might have cooled her feelings.) And no, she hasn’t betrayed him. Ernesto’s ready to believe her – until he learns Gualtiero is in the castle. I’ll kill him – and you too, says Ernesto. Not if he kills you first, retorts Imogene.
Gualtiero tries to persuade Imogene to flee with him, but she will be virtuous; she tells him to live and forgive. Ernesto surprises them; Imogene urges Gualtiero to flee. Flee? I’ve wanted to kill your husband for ten years, Gualtiero retorts, and now I can! The two men rejoice that the day of revenge and fury has arrived, and rush off, swords in hand.
Gualtiero kills Ernesto. Rather than taking to the high seas, he surrenders to the Duke’s men, and is condemned to death. Imogene goes mad. Gualtiero’s men rush in to try to save him, there’s a pitched battle between the pirates and the knights (sounds like an idea for a Hollywood blockbuster!), and Gualtiero stabs himself while leaping off a bridge.
For an opera called The Pirate, this isn’t very pirate-y. Not a Jolly Roger in sight, only a melancholy Walter!
It’s an enjoyable melodrama, with plenty of opportunities for singers to show off their voices. The opera abounds in the meltingly lovely, long melodic lines for which Bellini is famous; listen to the “Pietosa al padre!” section from Gualtiero and Imogene’s first duet, or Imogene’s mad scene.
The situation and characters may seem conventional, but Bellini and his librettist Romani introduced most of those conventions here. This is the first true Italian Romantic opera.
It is one of the earliest historical costume melodramas focusing on a tenor / soprano / baritone love triangle. Gualtiero, the brooding Byronic antihero, is the father of many of Verdi’s early tenor leads: a damned soul, with a tender side: “un magnanimo cor degenerato / Per avverso destin”.
Imogene is less interesting; she suffers passively, trapped in a loveless forced marriage but loving Gualtiero. “Io stessa, io stessa / Inconsolabil vivo.” But she sets the fashion for Italian prime donne for the next couple of decades by going mad in white satin.
The opera also marks the end of the age of Rossini. The musical style is Rossinian, but hardly in sentiment. The opera was written for three of the leading Rossini singers of the day; the singing style, as in Rossini’s serious operas, is florid, demanding agility of voice; and many of the pieces follow the Coda Rossini, the structure Rossini formalized in his operas.
Bellini, though, is a Romantic. “Opera must make people weep, shudder and die through singing!” Rossini is semi-Classical, even Baroque; his operas bridge the eighteenth century and the nineteenth century, looking as far back as Handel with their armour-bearing contralti in travesti. His music is full of brilliant vocal fireworks, and in his elaborate ensembles, he treats the voice more as instrument than as the expression of an individual’s soul. Joyous, exhilarating, serenely beautiful – and fundamentally extraverted.
Bellini’s music is introspective in a way that Rossini’s seldom is; it paints inner emotions – particularly suffering and pathos; and it is dramatically expressive, closely moulded to the word.
Bellini was conscious of the novelty of his approach. There’s a famous anecdote that he persuaded the tenor to act, rather than just sing. Giovanni Battista Rubini was considered the greatest tenor in the world, with a chest range of two octaves, from C to G, carried up to F by “head notes”. One thing Rubini didn’t do was act.
They started to rehearse the duet between Gualtiero and Imogene. But soon they met with the same difficulties as before and exclaimed, “You don’t put half of the soul you’ve got into it! Here, where you could easily move the public, you’re cold and languid. Put some passion into it? Have you never been in love?”
Rubini didn’t say a word to this, as he was very confused. Then the maestro said, using a rather sweeter voice, “Dear Rubini, do you think you’re Rubini or Gualtiero? Don’t you know that your voice is a goldmine not entirely discovered? Listen to me, I beg you, and one day you’ll be grateful. You are one of the best artists. Nobody can be your equal in bravura singing. But this isn’t enough!”
“I understand what you mean, but I cannot despair or enrage myself just for the sake of make-believe,” Rubini answered.
“The truth is that my music doesn’t please you because it doesn’t give you the usual opportunities. But if I have in mind a new style and a music that can express completely the words and form a union of singing and drama, should I give it up because you don’t want to [work] with me? In fact, you can co-operate with me, provided that you forget yourself and put yourself into the soul of the character that you represent. Look how it should be done.”
So Bellini started to sing. In spite of his undistinguished voice, inspired, he was moving to such an extent that he could have roused even the hardest of men. Deeply moved, Rubini followed with his outstanding voice.
“Bravo, Rubini. There you are, you have understood me! I’m happy. I will expect you to do the same tomorrow. Above all, always remember to practice while standing and accompany yourself with gestures.”
(Stelios Galatopoulos. Bellini: Life, Times, Music. London: Sanctuary Publishing, 2002, p. 65)
It’s surprising to learn that Rossinian singers weren’t expected to act. Contemporary critics had praised the mezzo-soprano Isabella Colbran’s acting; from the moment she stepped on stage, they wrote, she became Elizabeth I or Desdemona. Many of Rossini’s later operas – particularly Ermione (a bel canto Elektra), the last act of Otello, the erotic Armida, and Semiramide, with its guilt-ridden queen, incest, and matricide – were psychologically intense, gripping music dramas.
I much prefer Rossini to Bellini, and don’t think Il pirata measures up to Rossini’s mature masterpieces – but Bellini’s close attention to conveying emotions and text through music influenced some of his greatest successors.
Verdi praised Bellini’s “truth and power of expression”, while Wagner wrote: “Bellini is one of my predilections because his music is strongly felt and intimately bound up with the words. The music which I abhor, on the contrary, is that vague, indeterminate music that mocks libretto and situations.”
Il pirata’s storms, shipwrecks, and brooding seaman who has wandered the oceans for a decade, kept going by the hope of a woman’s love, surely also influenced The Flying Dutchman.
There’s also an interesting link to a great composer from the past. Il pirata was Bellini’s breakthrough opera, and it was his first work performed in the US. Lorenzo da Ponte, Mozart’s librettist, translated the libretto for the performances in the 1830s. It was, he said, “a splendid amusement”.
Melodramatic and full of beautiful music, Il pirata certainly is “a splendid amusement”.
As an opera about pirates, though, it gets the Black Spot.
The best recording I’ve heard is the 2003 Amsterdam performance, conducted by Giuliano Carella, starring Nelly Miricioiu (Imogene), Stefano Secco (Gualtiero), and Albert Shagidullin (Ernesto). This is an unofficial recording, available from House of Opera.
Of the commercial recordings, Parry’s 2012 recording for Opera Rara and Gavazzeni’s 1970 recording for EMI (with Montserrat Caballé) are both solid.