Home from the High Seas: Bellini's 'Il Pirata'

WOO-1311-Il-Pirata-overview-300Pirates have been around for as long as there have been ships and sailors, and while real life pirates may never have been regarded as notably upstanding characters, legendary pirates have always made for great storytelling.

Some of those stories can be heard in traditional music, in a sometimes bawdy sort of seafaring folk song called the pirate ballad. And that tradition has been carried forward, in recent years, at the movies.

The successful franchise of Pirates of the Carribean movies spawned a modern-day collection of pirate songs, including a 21st-century take on a tune with the familiar lyrics, "Fifteen men on a dead man's chest, Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!"

There have also been plenty of other popular pirate movies. One of the most famous of them all is the 1940 classic The Sea Hawk, starring Erroll Flynn, which also boasts a tremendous musical score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold.

So, considering the swashbuckling legends of pirates, and the music those tales have spawned, you might expect to see lots of pirates at the opera. But there really aren't all that many, and of the pirate operas you will find -- including Verdi's The Corsair -- there haven't been many true success stories.

There could be any number of reasons for that. For one thing, the royalty and aristocrats that were long the primary patrons of opera tended to frown on stories that idealized criminal behavior. There are also purely practical reasons. Adventures at sea may be easy enough to present using movie-era special effects, but putting realistic pirate ships on stage in the opera house is a difficult and expensive proposition.

Yet there is at least one pirate opera that proved a big hit, though its brooding story is hardly the tale of a carefree, seagoing adventurer. It's the opera featured here, Vicenzo Bellini's Il Pirata -- The Pirate.

It was premiered at La Scala, in Milan, in 1827, when the composer was in his mid-twenties. It was only Bellini's third opera, and just his second to receive a full-scale production. But it was such a big hit that it almost instantly made him an international star.

Il Pirata is also regarded as the first, truly Romantic Italian opera. Together with Weber's Der Freischuetz and Meyerbeer's Robert le diable, it helped usher in opera's Romantic era all across Europe.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Il Pirata from the Gran Teatre del Liceu, in Barcelona. American tenor Gregory Kunde stars in the title role, as the pirate Gualtiero. As his deadly rival Ernesto, it's Bulgarian baritone Vladimir Stoyanov. And Italian soprano Mariella Devia, still going strong in her early sixties, does a true star turn as Imogene. The production is led by conductor Antonino Fogliani.