That's the story these days at the Metropolitan Opera that at long last has a prima donna in Renee Fleming whose wish to sing a new role is a command to the management to stage an expensive new production.
The exquisitely beautiful blonde soprano, 43 and in her prime, has proved herself a worthy successor to Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland as a world-class opera star whose name in the cast of any performance will fill every seat in the house. She is currently selling out the Met's premiere production of "Il Pirata," which was last staged in New York in 1834.
This rarely heard work, Vicenzo Bellini's first hit premiered in Milan in 1827, has been brought out of obscurity at Fleming's express wish so she can perform the difficult bel canto role of Imogene, last tackled by Callas in European opera houses more than four decades ago. Performances of "Il Pirata" at the Metropolitan are scheduled through Feb. 5.
Bel canto is an Italian term for "beautiful singing" in the early 19th-century style requiring evenness of delivery throughout the entire range of a singer's voice, bell-like tonal clarity, and vocal ornamentation known as coloratura. Until 10 years ago Fleming avoided the bel canto operas, sticking to Mozart, Verdi, Massenet, Gounod, Dvorak and contemporary works.
Since then she has been working toward a whole new gallery of roles offered by the operas of Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini, and her most recent CD recording for Decca is titled "Bel Canto." Only a talent of Fleming's magnitude, widely sought after for concert and television appearances as well as opera, could make Imogene as familiar an operatic name as Violetta, Marguerite, Carmen or Mimi.
The Met's visually splendid production of "Il Pirata" with a powerhouse cast should encourage the tragic opera's revival by other opera companies. It is a hybrid work inspired by a Gothic novel by Charles Robert Maturin, an Irish clergyman, that was dramatized in London in 1816. Bellini's librettist, Felice Romani, based the opera on a French adaptation of the play by Isadore J.S. Taylor.
It tells of a woman of honor (Imogene) who is forced into a loveless marriage to save her father's life. When her husband, a Sicilian nobleman of the 15th century, discovers that she is still in love with his old foe, a nobleman he has exiled who has turned into a pirate, there is a showdown that results in the deaths of both men and madness for Imogene.
Fleming turns in an affecting dramatic performance as the wife who will not break her marriage vows and run away with her beloved pirate, and her vocalism is flawless, including repeated high C's. No one singing today can float pianissimo high notes as she can, and although her coloratura is less than effortless, it is beautifully integrated into the melodic line of the music. And to her credit, she performed the requisite "mad scene" without resorting to curtain chewing.
The ovation she receives when the final curtain rises again to reveal her alone on stage, (an honor reserved only for prima donnas) is an almost unbelievable animal roar of approval rising as one voice from the adoring audience, followed by wild applause. It is one of those ovations heard only in opera houses, never on Broadway. After taking bows solo, she is joined by the rest of the cast.
Marcello Giordani, in the role of the pirate, Montalto, makes a handsome leading man and his tenor is a thrilling Italianate instrument (appropriately enough, he is from Sicily) with all the right throbs and powerful high Cs. He has some trouble with pitch when scooping for high notes, but the audience seems to forgive him for this and accords him a torrent of bravos when he takes his bows.
As Imogene's husband, Ernesto, Duke of Caldora, Richard Zeller makes an imposing figure and has a stalwart baritone to match. Outstanding in supporting roles are mezzo Maria Zifchak as Imogene's companion, basso Julien Robbins as Montalto's old tutor, and tenor Garrett Sorenson, making an auspicious Metropolitan debut as Montalto's pirate buddy.
Conductor Bruno Campanella draws a shimmering and thoroughly elegant performance of Bellini's lilting and endlessly melodic score from the Metropolitan's superb orchestra, and director John Copley has devised a production that is impressive for Renaissance pageantry suitable to a noble court.
Set designer John Conklin has provided a series of castle scenes notable for malachite and lapis lazuli columns and tapestry-like backgrounds set in a golden frame within a shadow box, and lighting designer Duane Schuler has illuminated them like Old Master paintings. Robert Perdziola's satiny costumes look like a million dollars and probably cost more.
Without Fleming as Imogene, putting a bundle of money into such a lavish production of an opera unknown to Metropolitan Opera audiences would have been a daunting risk. But with her singing the role, it is an investment that spells money in the bank and more bel canto roles for the soprano from Rochester, N.Y., in the near future.