226. La straniera (Bellini)

  • Melodramma in 2 acts
  • Composer: Vincenzo Bellini
  • Libretto: Felice Romani, after Arlincourt’s L’Étrangère
  • First performed: Teatro alla Scala, Milan, Italy, 14th February 1829

ALAIDESoprano Henriette Méric-Lalande
The Baron of VALDEBURGO BaritoneAntonio Tamburini
ARTURO, Count of Ravenstel TenorDomenico Reina
ISOLETTA, daughter of the Lord of Montolino, betrothed to Arturo MezzoCarolina Ungher
The Prior of the Knights Hospitallers BassDomenico Spiaggi
The Lord of MONTOLINO BassStanislao Marcionni
OSBURGO, Arturo’s confidant TenorLuigi Asti
Knights and Ladies, Gondoliers and Fishermen,
Hospitallers, Huntsmen, Guards, Vassals of Montolino
 Chorus 

SETTING: Brittany, in the Castle of Montolino and is environs. About the year 1200.


Rating: 3 out of 5.

 “Banished, disgraced, a wanderer, reviled…” (E tu proscritta, errante, | Infamata, avvilita…). La Straniera, Alaide, is another of bel canto’s suffering heroines: a loving but tragic woman who believes she is doomed to make others miserable. Shrouded in veils, she haunts the shores of a lake, lamenting her lot. The locals believe she is a witch. A young nobleman, Arturo, is obsessed with her: he leaves his fiancée, Isoletta, at the altar; and he half-murders her brother, Valdeburgo, whom he thinks is a rival. Only at the end do we learn that Alaide is really Agnese, Isemberga is dead, and Alaide is now queen. Only if we have read the prologue to the libretto do we understand that Agnese is the secret second wife of the king of France, Philippe-Auguste; that the king repudiated his wife, Isemberga of Denmark, but, threatened with excommunication, reinstated his first wife, and exiled the second. But being acclaimed queen does not bring Alaide any happiness. Distraught at the prospect of losing her, Arturo stabs himself, and dies at her feet. Alaide declares he is the victim of her ill-omened love, and collapses.

Act I: Engraving of scene by Focosi.

La Straniera was Bellini’s fourth opera, and his first for La Scala. It was a triumph: five curtain-calls for the composer. The Gazzetta privilegiata di Milano declared that the opera’s “beautiful song, and splendidly elegant and pleasing instrumentation” recalled the days of Jommelli, Marcello, and Pergolesi, and hailed Bellini as “a modern Orpheus”.

“It could not be called furore, being praised to the skies, fanaticism, enthusiasm, etc.,” Bellini wrote to his uncle. “No, I assure you that none of these terms is adequate to express the pleasure that the music, all of it, aroused…

“With God’s help, I hope to stamp my name on the epoch … the public is kind enough to regard me as an innovative artist, and not as an imitator of Rossini’s overwhelming art … with this new opera my reputation is sky-high, and by unremitting application I hope to raise it higher still.”

While the story has been much criticised for its romantic excesses, and its reliance upon a poorly exposited secret, what strikes the listener is the directness of the score, compared to much Italian opera of its period. The orchestration is often simple (in several passages, only a few chords underlying the vocal line), and there is little ornamentation (except in Isoletta’s Act II aria, a conventional piece that holds up the action). “Coloratura in the title part serves to introduce the strange lady offstage, and after that is wholly dramatic,” John Rosselli (The Life of Bellini, 1996) notes. The prima donna’s offstage vocalisation before she appears, the lakeside setting, the hunters’ chorus recall Rossini’s Donna del lago (1819). But (unlike, say, I Capuleti e i Montecchi), one could not mistake this music for Rossini’s. Indeed, Rosselli considers that Bellini “had got clean away from the florid Rossinian style”.

Moreover, he continues, Bellini cuts through the normal structure of early 19th-century Italian opera for the sake of dramatic speed. The composer told his librettist, Romani, that he wanted a work dominated by duets and ensembles, not numbers of arias for particular singers. Thus, Act I contains superb examples of both: Alaide and Arturo’s 15-minute duet (with an exquisite phrase, “Ah! non ti lusingar!”), a meltingly lovely trio (“No, non ti son rivale…”), and a tender terzettino.

Rosselli, in fact, considers La Straniera “Bellini’s most radical opera. It is at once the most violently romantic and the most severe in its shunning of ornament. Declamation, generally syllabic, leads into arioso that sounds like an incipient aria but refuses to develop into a closed form: … ‘the musicalisation of recitative’.”

This “tendency towards declamation over aria” baffled contemporary listeners, Benjamin Walton (Opera Rara) points out: L’Eco was unsure whether Bellini’s method was sung declamation or declaimed song; the Journal des débats (8 November 1832) thought “the musical phrase suffers from continual interruptions imposed by the dramatic meaning”; The Harmonicon (July 1832) thought the score’s principal feature was “a frequent occurrence of short phrases of melody, generally pleasing and flowing on the ear, but which are no sooner taken up than they are abandoned again, as if the author either had not time or talent to work out the ideas that had occurred to him”.

But for a modern listener, like Rosselli, the “declamatory”, through-composed quality makes the work “proto-Wagnerian”. Wagner, for his part, admired the work; it had “real passion and feeling: all it needs to enchant people is for the right woman singer to come along and sing it”.

And it is very much the prima donna’s opera. Alaide has two mad scenes, at the end of each act; the first replaces the usual ensemble concertato (she believes Arturo has killed her brother), and the second is the customary prima donna finale (she laments Arturo’s suicide). Both are effective.

Henriette Méric-Lalande as Alaide, La Scala, 1829.

The tenor, on the other hand, has no solo aria at all. M’colleague Phil suggests this is because Arturo, mentally ill, is “incapable of the emotions and introspection needed for an aria”. Certainly, Arturo is unstable, even by the standards of Italian opera tenors; he stalks la Straniera, ditches his bride on their wedding day, confronts Valdeburgo twice, and tries to kill him, while veering from self-pity to hatred to protestations of devotion. Bellini described him as “un disperato”; Arturo calls himself demented, insane.

In contrast, the baritone (Valdeburgo) is the voice of stability, stability, goodness, maturity; Bellini called Valdeburgo “reserved, amiable, serious, and interesting”, and gave him the lovely aria, “Meco tu vieni, o misera”, which Berlioz thought “would move the indifferent to tears”.

There are also some fine choruses; the opera begins with a barcarolle, sung from boats on the lake – a novel effect.


Recordings

Listen to: Patrizia Ciofi (Alaide), Mark Stone (Valdeburgo), Darío Schmunk (Arturo), with the Geoffrey Mitchell Choir and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by David Parry, London 2007; Opera Rara ORC 38.


Works consulted

  • Piotr Kaminski, Mille et un opéras, Paris : Fayard, 2003
  • Charles Osborne, The Bel Canto Operas of Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini. Portland, Oregon: Amadeus Press, 1994.
  • John Rosselli, The Life of Bellini, Cambridge University Press, 1996.
  • Benjamin Walton, “The creation of La Straniera”, Opera Rara 2007.

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