Callas and The Pirate: Back Story
Saturday on Stage presents Bellini’s Il Pirata, with Maria Callas, Pier Miranda Ferraro and Nicola Rescigno, Saturday at 1:30 on Classical 101.
Only in opera can you have a story about pirates with nary an eye patch, parrot or wooden leg. Instead, we get a lot of singing and a wonderful confusing plot for Bellini’s Il Pirata. Bellini’s pirate was first performed in Milan in 1827. It has survived over the years and morphed from a tenor vehicle to a soprano showcase. It would have been perfect for Sutherland-Pavarotti, but by their primes no one could afford to hire the two together for an extended run.
Here’s the story: Imogene loves Gualtiero. He goes of pirat-ing. She’s forced to marry Ernesto (baritone, that’s how you know he’s a bad guy.) Imogene hates Ernesto. He doesn’t care, and threatens to kill her family if she doesn’t agree.
One day, who should turn up shipwrecked but Gualterio? He and Imogene are reunited. Ernesto vows revenge. There’s a fight. Ernesto is killed. Gualtiero is condemned to death. Imogene goes mad and sings a long final scene as the death sentence is chanted off stage. Attempted high D. Curtain.
Callas sang Il Pirata at Carnegie Hall in January 1959. She had been fired from the Metropolitan by Rudolf Bing the year before. After all the principals had died, it was revealed that this firing was set up by Callas’s husband, Battista Menghini, in favor of a much more lucrative concert tour. This Pirata in Carnegie Hall was her return to New York, where the audience missed her, and was aflame with the “Met Fires Callas” headlines.
Here’s more back story: Maria Callas gave 5 performances of Il Pirata at La Scala, Milan in 1958. A few months earlier, she had cancelled a performance of Norma at the Rome Opera after the first act, claiming laryngitis. She had asked for the understudy and was told “Impossible”. The President of Italy and the Cabinet were present. DeGaulle was a special guest. The cancellation was seen as an affront to Italy. There were riots. Callas had to be smuggled out of the Rome Opera via underground passageways not used since partisans fled Mussolini’s Blackshirts a generation earlier.
Her career never recovered from this. La Scala, her home theater, did not defend her in print. Quite the contrary. So the environment for Il Pirata in Milan was dicey. The public was wound up to boo la straniera (the foreigner).
At the end of the opera, Imogene has a line: Vedete! Il palco funesto!” (Behold the terrible scaffold). Palco can also mean a theater box. She sang that line pointing to the General Manager’s box at La Scala where sat her nemesis, soverrintendente Antonio Ghiringhelli.
Her home had been vandalized. It was literally unsafe for her to go out. She left Milan for two years. Her voice was dismissed at her return in 1961 and, by 1965, she was Onassis’s girl friend and her career was over. Tragedy on all fronts. Fantastic show, though.