Renee Fleming’s debut in the demanding role of Imogene in Bellini’s “Il Pirata” at the Metropolitan Opera was one of the toughest challenges this highly disciplined artist has set for herself. And set it she did: The opera has never been staged at the Met, and it was mounted at her request. That’s a rare honor, and it only increased the sense of occasion surrounding the opening — and, presumably, the sense of responsibility felt by the singer herself, an artist at the top of her field who continues to explore demanding new territory in the glare of media attention that can sometimes be harsher than even the most graceless stage lighting. Fleming’s performance — vocally sumptuous and dramatically engaging, even in an opera whose second-tier status couldn’t be disguised by all the gilt framing of John Copley’s production — was the occasion, and it was a memorable one.
“Il Pirata” was Bellini’s first hit, but it is less musically sophisticated than his later and better-known operas, although it still contains stretches of gorgeous, long-lined melody, sensitively shaped here by conductor Bruno Campanella. It is a vehicle that rises or falls on the performance of the soprano, who is onstage for virtually the entire opera, often singing music of dazzling intricacy that also requires lyrical expansiveness and more than a few moments of fiery power.
The plot is relatively straightforward by bel canto standards, even if it comes with the usual potboiler fripperies: a storm scene, a mad scene, a sword fight, a fainting spell and far too many people running around exclaiming “Giusto ciel!” (That’s “merciful heavens,” more or less.) Fleming’s Imogene is the unhappily married wife of Dwayne Croft’s Ernesto, duke of Caldora, father of the young son she loves. Who should wash ashore in the opera’s opening scene but Imogene’s great love Gualtiero (Marcello Giordani), Ernesto’s sworn enemy, now a pirate, and less than pleased to discover the lass he’s pined for during his years of swashbuckling was forced to marry Ernesto lest her aged father be put to death. Imogene spends much of the evening imploring the man she actually loves to flee before the man she doesn’t love can have him dispatched; not surprisingly, she does not succeed.
Hokum, unquestionably, but delivered here in a handsome if generic production with sets by John Conklin that scaled down the Met’s grand stage to dimensions that allowed the pathos of Imogene’s plight to strike some authentic emotional chords. The vocal qualities of good guy and bad — which is to say tenor and baritone, respectively — were mismatched, unfortunately. Croft sang with gorgeous tone and matching delicacy, while Giordani’s moments of spectacular volume could hardly disguise the consistent coarseness of his singing. Bellini’s music requires far more pliancy than he could muster.
But the evening belonged to Fleming, whose singing was remarkable for its consistent beauty of tone even amid the music’s most demanding passages. It was beautifully expressive, too, particularly in the cavatina in the mad scene, in which maternal affection and desperation blur together as Imogene implores her bewildered young son to intercede for her with his father — who happens to be dead. Her phrasing here was moving in its unadorned simplicity.
Fleming has been acclaimed for her Strauss and Mozart (and is expected by some, it often seems, to be content to make a career of it), and may not possess the big, paint-peeling top notes that many voice worshippers relish in these bel canto roles. But so what? She spun out breathtaking pianissimo notes, dazzling runs of ornamentation, dark chest tones throbbing with emotional force.
And the challenges of the music never inhibited her commitment to conveying the moment-to-moment psychological state of Imogene, a heroine drawn with more depth and color than many a distressed bel canto damsel. She begins and ends the opera haunted by premonitory visions, and spends the time in between being emotionally battered by one man or another. A few stock gestures notwithstanding — and these could easily be refined away — Fleming discovered and communicated through her acting the authenticity of emotional distress that disguises itself in such unnaturally beautiful sound.