Monday 26 August 2019

A spine tingling performance from Simone Victor in the title role of Bellini's Beatrice di Tenda at this London Bel Canto Festival showcase performance

Poster for the premiere of Bellini's Beatrice di Tenda at La Fenice, Venice in 1833
Poster for the premiere of Bellini's Beatrice di Tenda at La Fenice, Venice in 1833
Bellini Beatrice di Tenda; Simone Victor, Brian Hotchkin, Taryn Surratt, Sergio Augusto, London City Philharmonic Orchestra, Olsi Qinami; London Bel Canto Festival at St George's Hanover Square
Reviewed by Anthony Evans on 22 August 2019 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
Bellini's neglected melodrama serio showcasing the young talents from the London Bel Canto Festival

The real-life story of Beatrice Lascaris di Tenda, a woman who by all accounts had a reputation for honesty and modesty, and was seen by some as a martyr, served as inspiration for many writers among them Carlo Tebaldi-Fores whose opus served as Bellini’s inspiration.

Bellini’s Beatrice di Tenda is a melodrama serio from a libretto by Felice Romani. Set in the Castle of Binasco, Milan, it tells the story of Beatrice di Tenda widow of the Count of Biandrate the Condottiero Facino Cane. Following the Condottiero’s death Beatrice makes an impetuous marriage to Duke Filippo Maria Visconti thus conferring on him her wealth, cities and the soldiers of Facino. Whether by dint of her age, her power or reputation Filippo tires of his wife and as so commonly happened back in the day a denunciation for adultery followed. Plus ça change.

Sadly neglected, Bellini’s Beatrice di Tenda, his tale of naked ambition and the abuse of power turned up on Thursday 22 August 2019 at the church of St. George’s Hanover Square courtesy of the London Bel Canto Festival. Part of the festival’s raison d’etre is to teach and champion young artists in the Bel Canto repertoire and singers from around the world came to take part.

At Thursday’s performance the Danish soprano Simone Victor who has appeared at the festival in previous years, eliciting fulsome praise from the Guardian’s Stephen Pritchard, sang the titular Beatrice. Brian Hotchkin and Taryn Surratt, from the USA, sang Filippo and Agnese whilst the Mexican Canadian tenor Sergio Augusto, currently in the UK sang Orombello. Iranian born Sam Elmi was Anchino and Bombay born Shakti Pherwani was Rizzardo. Olsi Qinami conducted the London City Philharmonic Orchestra.

For all that St. George’s is a striking building with its Flemish glass, William Kent Last Supper and historical connection to Handel, it’s not what you’d call a natural fit acoustically or physically for a Bel Canto opera – one of the poor choristers had to make a particularly undignified entrance, though she was rewarded with a round of applause for her efforts.

After a tentative and clumsy start the orchestra settled into its stride with plenty of impassioned playing and dramatic flair but a little more delicacy and fluidity would certainly have given the singers a break. What didn’t help either was the emphasis of style over words and with no surtitles or printed libretto keeping up with the minutiae of the love quadrangle was a bit tricksy. Sergio Augusto was the clearest enunciator of the bunch and seemed to have a real feel for the language.

That said there was some stylish singing even if occasionally the demands of the score proved a stretch too far. Taryn Surratt’s ethereal opening ‘Ah! Non pensar’ was beautifully warm toned but the tessitura didn’t sound comfortable, and she never seemed to settle. Brian Hotchkin was even toned and smooth of line, but his lack of vocal colour turned Filippo from a tyrant into a petulant accountant. Once again, the tessitura proved a little too much for him - jabbing at his top notes. ‘Qui mi accolse’, Filippo’s big number, was marred by a badly misjudged top note. Orombello, a bit of a drip, is not much of a part for the tenor, but Sergio Augusto’s charisma, silvery tone and clarity of language certainly paid dividends, and he made the most of this underwritten part.

Safe to say if you don’t have a thrilling Beatrice you’re sunk; but you don’t acquire Ms Victor’s poise without reason. Patently her Beatrice wasn’t going to be a two-dimensional arm waver. The audience was not disappointed. She was compelling and fearless with pinpoint accurate coloratura. And still - stillness is much underrated. If I wanted semaphore, I’d join the navy. ‘Respiro io qui’ was full of grace and dignity. Musical lines were spun effortlessly deploying heart melting pianissimi. In ‘Il mio dolore’ her despair was tinged with an iron sense of sangfroid. And finally, when she made her peace, ‘Deh se un’urna’ was suffused with power and nobility. A triumph in death that received a heartfelt ovation from an exhilarated audience. Spine tingling.
Reviewed by Anthony Evans

Bellini: Beatrice di Tenda
St. George’s Hanover Square
Thursday 22 August 2019
London Bel Canto Festival
Beatrice : Simone Victor
Filippo : Brian Hotchkin
Agnese : Taryn Surratt
Orombello : Sergio Augusto
Anchino : Sam Elmi
Rizzardo : Shakti Pherwani
London City Philharmonic Orchestra
Conductor : Olsi Qinami

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