Bellini's La straniera
Sunday, november 19, 2017
Presented at Lisner Auditorium.
Below you will find the Program Notes and Synopsis for Sunday's performance.
By Peter Russell
The colorful cast of characters and curious milieu in which Vincenzo Bellini wrote and rehearsed La straniera would be worthy of one of the popular “human comedy” novels of his contemporaries. Honoré de Balzac, with his unique gift for capturing a specific segment of society as both a broad canvas and one populated by extraordinary personalities, might have vividly conjured the intrigue and histrionics behind putting a new Bellini opera on the stage in Milan in 1829 (over 150 years later, American playwright Terrence McNally chose a similar dramatic landscape for his 2009 farce Golden Age, lampooning preparations for the 1835 Paris world premiere of Bellini’s I puritani).
Bellini had enjoyed a great triumph at age 25 — one that literally put him on the map — with the premiere of his third opera Il pirata at Milan’s fabled Teatro alla Scala in October of 1827. While audiences valued and welcomed the music of a brilliant young composer, opera was very much a singer-driven commodity in 19th century Italy. Bellini had been fortunate to have as his lead artists for Il pirata three of the most revered stars of their era: French soprano Henriette Méric-Lalande, tenor Giovanni Battista Rubini, and bass-baritone Antonio
Tamburini. Their enormous success with audiences and critics translated directly into Bellini’s rapid growth in popularity and prestige.
One man — Domenico Barbaja — reigned in those years as impresario not only of La Scala, but also of the San Carlo in Naples, one of the other top two or three Italian opera houses. A shrewd, ambitious, self-made businessman with a keen artistic sense, Barbaja had first earned a fortune as proprietor of a chain of coffee houses in Milan, raked in still more cash selling munitions during the Napoleonic wars, and rose through the ranks swiftly at La Scala from head of the theater’s gaming operations to top management. Knowing that he had a potential goldmine in Bellini, he immediately broached the topic of commissioning the composer for a follow-up to Il pirata on the heels of its Scala opening, offering the possibility that the new opera could receive its premiere in either Milan or Naples under his auspices. Bellini’s deal-breakers included Felice Romani, his collaborator on Il pirata, to write the book, a huge fee for himself, and top-notch principal singers. His inclination was to write the new work for Milan, where he not only had recently tasted adulation, but knew that he would have access to a better availability of artists, with one notable exception. The tenor Rubini’ s performance as the title character in Il pirata under Bellini’s guidance had been a breakthrough of sorts. Cherished by audiences for the sweetness of his singing, which he carried up to a freakishly facile, spine-tingling upper register, Rubini had never been considered much of an actor. Bellini exhorted and goaded the tenor relentlessly until he transformed himself into a magnetic, wild-eyed, passionate outlaw, driving audiences to a frenzy, and the composer to conclude that he must henceforth always have Rubini as his leading man. But Barbaja had already contracted the services of Rubini to perform for his company in Naples during the Carnival season late in 1828 when Bellini’s new opera would open in Milan, and the impresario wouldn’t budge in releasing his star from his obligations. Bellini otherwise came away satisfied from the bargaining table with Barbaja, and set to work.
Bellini and Romani’s choice for the plot of their new opera was a highly fictionalized account of an episode in the life of the second wife of King Philip II of France, Agnes of Merania, as portrayed in the 1825 novel L’Étrangère by Charles-Victor Prévôt. While both the book and plethora of plays it spawned have long since
fallen into oblivion, they were very popular in their day, and Prévôt sold nearly as many novels in his lifetime as did Victor Hugo. Bellini was demanding, needy, and frustratingly inarticulate in dealing with his librettist, often seeming to expect his wordsmith to magically intuit his wishes regarding dramatic scenarios and verses. For his part, Romani had a healthy dose of self-worth: as the most esteemed librettist of his generation, he could be condescending and short with other composers, but respected Bellini’s talent sufficiently to endure repeated requests for rewrites unflinchingly. Progress on La straniera fell behind schedule in September of 1828 when Romani succumbed to illness, ultimately postponing the date of the opera’s premiere from opening of the Scala season (December 26, 1828) to February 14, 1829. Once underway, rehearsals went uneventfully. In addition to two of the stellar leads who had been integral in launching Il pirata, soprano Henriette Méric-Lalande as Alaïde and bass-baritone Antonio Tamburini as Valdeburgo, the principals included contralto Caroline Unger as Isoletta and a promising new tenor, Domenico Reina, as Arturo, honorably replacing the otherwise engaged Rubini. Among Méric-Lalande’s future engagements, she went on to create the title role in Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia in 1833. Tamburini likewise starred in several Donizetti premieres, including Don Pasquale, as well as Bellini’s own I puritani. Unger, a native of Vienna, had participated in the inaugural performances of both Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis and Symphony No. 9: according to contemporary accounts, it was she who took the deaf composer’s hand and turned him around from the podium following the final bars to face the audience’s clamorous ovations. Unger inspired Donizetti to compose the title roles in his Parisina and Maria de Rudenz for her (she was also one of several distinguished female singers of her generation to be romantically linked to Domenico Barbaja).
The Scala premiere run of La straniera was, if anything, even more widely acclaimed than that of Il pirata two years earlier. Critics praised Bellini’s growing maturity as a craftsman, and audiences responded rapturously. Within five years, the opera had traveled to Paris, London, Vienna, and New York; within the next three decades, it had been produced in over 50 theaters in Italy alone. Yet by the last quarter of the 19th century, La straniera, like so many other “hits” of its era, had fallen out of fashion, pushed to the fringes of the repertoire as newer works by Verdi and Wagner took the world by storm.
Bellini told both Romani and Barbaja that he wanted to avoid duplicating the dramatic structure of Il pirata and to drop from his vocal writing any adherence to the “old school” style of excessively embroidering vocal lines purely for display. It had been Gioachino Rossini who had influenced many of his contemporaries by popularizing the technique of writing wildly virtuosic vocal parts. Coincidentally, Rossini’s decision in 1829—the same year as the premiere of La straniera—to bid farewell to writing operas following the unveiling of his own Guillaume Tell in Paris helped free all his successors to find their own creative voices. Bellini’s instincts were always to write long, melodic lines rather than pyrotechnics, yet his vocal writing here as elsewhere is hardly plain, especially for his female lead. He brilliantly introduces us to Alaïde as a mysterious, disembodied “offstage” voice, singing of the solitary life to harp accompaniment. But her lines slither with vertiginous chromatic scales and include two high Cs. Alaïde’s final aria, which Bellini told Romani he wished to be simultaneously “a prayer, an imprecation, a resignation, and desperation,” is another example of the composer’s unique gift of using the fullest capabilities of the human singing voice to capture a wide range of emotions. Bellini revised the role of Arturo a few years after the opera’s premiere when Giovanni Battista Rubini was able at last to take on the role of Arturo, rewriting the tenor’s lines to maximize his star’s easy upper range. In both the original and revision, however, this is a role fraught with passionate intensity and outpourings of an appropriate ardor. Bellini’s growing discernment in how to build musical/theatrical tension in the trial scene at the beginning of Act II yields an arc that works in performance as one could never possibly imagine on the page, given its dramatic implausibility.
In the past half-century, fully staged performances of La straniera have been rare worldwide. The exquisite Renata Scotto sang Alaïde in productions in Palermo (1968) and Venice (1970). In the U.S., its most recent staged performances were at the Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, SC in 1989, with Carol Neblett as Alaïde and Marcello Giordani as Arturo. Notable concert performances have included those at Carnegie Hall by American Opera Society in 1969 (starring Montserrat Caballé) and 1993 by Opera Orchestra of New York (Renée Fleming and Gregory Kunde did the honors).
Washington Concert Opera’s performance this evening of La straniera marks both the company’s sixth Bellini opera out of the total of 11 completed by the composer during his brief lifetime, and the first professional presentation in recorded history of this work in our nation’s capital.
Peter Russell is the General Director of Vocal Arts DC and co-founder,
with Stephen Crout, of Washington Concert Opera.
Brittany in the early 13th century.
A chorus of peasants and followers of Lord Montolino sing of the upcoming wedding of their lord’s daughter Isoletta to Count Arturo of Ravenstal. But, Isoletta unhappily confides to her friend Baron Valdeburgo that she fears Arturo now loves another — a mysterious veiled woman called “La straniera,” who lives alone in a hut by the lake. Isoletta once observed the woman and heard her call the name “Arturo” as she fled (Duet: Agli atti, al volto /non mortal, divina imago; “From her gestures, her expression, she did not appear to be mortal, but rather a divine image”). In the distance a crowd is heard cursing La straniera as a witch. Valdeburgo, Montolino, and Arturo’s friend Osburgo try to comfort Isoletta, but notice that “already she wilts and fades.” Osburgo promises to attempt to bring Arturo to his senses.
Arturo enters La straniera’s hut, looking for clues to the identity of this woman he knows as Alaïde. He discovers a portrait of her dressed in royal robes with a coronet. He hears her voice in the distance lamenting, with harp accompaniment, that greatness is an illusion and only weeping lasts forever. When she finds Arturo in her room, she reproaches him for pursuing her, but he insists he loves her and is there only to help her. She urges him to leave her in peace explaining that “Heaven has placed an insuperable barrier between us.” He continues to question her, and in an extended duet, he proclaims Serba, serba i tuoi segreti (“Keep, keep your secrets....but it is useless to forbid me to love you”), while she responds with Taci, taci, è l’amor mio; condannato sulla terra (“Hush, hush, my love is condemned upon this earth”). She tells him that she will reveal nothing about her past and begs him never to return. However, as the duet continues, she admits that it will be hard to erase him from her heart. Thrilled that she loves him, Arturo swears that he will follow her “even into a desert” while she warns “Your wish will prove your undoing.” The sound of huntsmen is heard in the distance. In the scene finale, the couple expresses their feelings and anxieties — she pleads with him to leave, he insists that her fate will be his “In life or in death.”
In a forest near Alaïde’s hut, horns are heard in the distance as hunters Osburgo and Valdeburgo encounter Arturo. Osburgo begs him to return for his wedding to Isoletta, but he refuses, declaring that he no longer loves her. Arturo persuades Valdeburgo to meet Alaïde, promising never to see her again if Valdeburgo thinks her unworthy. When they approach the hut, to Arturo’s surprise, Alaïde and Valdeburgo are overjoyed to recognize each other and embrace. Valdeburgo tells Arturo that she cannot ever be his, but that he cannot reveal the reason. Arturo believes that Valdeburgo is his rival for Alaïde’s affections and draws his sword. Valdeburgo explains that they have known each other since childhood (Trio: first Valdeburgo No: non ti son rivale; “No: I am not your rival;” then Arturo “Ah, if he is not my rival, What does he wish of me;” then Alaïde “No, you have no rival”). Alaïde persuades Arturo to leave by promising that she will see him again.
Arturo is jealous of Valedburgo (Che mai penso? Un dubbio atroce / Mi rimane e il cor mi preme...; “Whatever am I to think? My heart is heavy...”). When Osburgo and his entourage enter, they tell him they have overheard Valdeburgo and Alaïde planning to flee together. The couple comes out of her hut, and Arturo hears their plans to depart the next day; Alaïde calls Valdeburgo by the name Leopoldo. Concluding that they are lovers, Arturo confronts Valdeburgo demanding revenge. Valdeburgo is wounded in the fight and falls into the lake. When Alaïde enters, Arturo declares that he has killed his rival. Alaïde reveals that Valdeburgo is her brother. Distraught, Arturo jumps into the lake promising to rescue him or die. Attracted by the shouting, a crowd finds a dazed Alaïde with Arturo’s bloody sword. She admits that her love for him was fatal; she is guilty of murder, so they drag her away to prison.
Alaïde, hidden by a heavy veil, is brought to trial in the great hall of the Tribunal of the Hospitallers. Osburgo testifies against her. When she speaks, refusing to give any name but La straniera, the presiding Prior feels that he has heard her voice before. Suddenly, Arturo rushes in and confesses that he killed Valdeburgo believing he was his rival. The court accuses Alaïde of being his accomplice, and the chorus exclaims that the ax will fall on them both. Then Valdeburgo appears, having also survived his time in the lake. He exonerates Arturo explaining that they fought a duel and that he fell into the lake. The Prior again demands that Alaïde reveal her identity, so she agrees to show her face to the Prior alone. Exclaiming, “Ah!” when she lifts her veil, the Prior allows Alaïde to depart with Valeburgo. An unhappy Arturo is left alone, while the Prior chastises Osburgo for his false testimony against Alaïde.
Arturo approaches Alaïde’s hut to beg her forgiveness and tell her again of his great love for her. Valdeburgo appears and warns that seeing Arturo again may kill her, as she is almost mad with grief. In an extended duet, first Valdeburgo (Si...Sulla salma del fratello / T’apri il passo; “Yes, over the corpse of her brother will you reach her”) then Arturo (Ah, pietà... non io favello; / È un amore disperato; “Ah! have pity.... It is not I who speaks; It is a love that is desperate”). Since he can never marry Alaïde, Valdeburgo urges Arturo to marry Isoletta as he has promised. Arturo agrees on the condition that Alaïde attend the ceremony, so he can see her one final time.
In an apartment in the Castle of Montolino, Isoletta, although preparing for her wedding, sings with flute obbligato of her lonely grief and sense of betrayal. (Nè alcun ritorna?....Oh crudel. / Dolorosa incertezza; “And not a soul returns? Oh cruel, Grievous uncertainty!”). She speaks to Arturo’s portrait until the wedding party joyfully appears proclaiming that Arturo is in the castle and that he wants to marry her that very day.
Montolino welcomes the courtiers to the wedding. Arturo approaches Valdeburgo, who tells him Alaïde is present but hidden. (Quartet: Arturo, Isoletta, Valdeburgo, and Alaïde, aside). Isoletta greets Arturo, but on taking his hand, exclaims that it is as cold as his heart and releases him from his promise of marriage. Alaïde steps forward declaring that she has come to give Isoletta courage. As La straniera, she begs Isoletta to continue with the wedding and begins to lead the couple into the church. Alaïde stays outside, exclaiming that she has now abandoned hope (Ciel pietoso, in sì crudo momento, / Al mio labbro perdona un lament; “Merciful Heaven, in such a cruel moment, Forgive my lips if they utter a lament”). Music is heard from within the church as the choir sings blessings to the couple. Sudden silence from within is followed by tumult. Arturo bursts out of the church and begs Alaïde to run off with him. At that moment, the Prior arrives and announces that Alaïde is really Agnes, Queen of France. Many years ago, King Philippe-Auguste had married Isemberga, but renounced her and subsequently married Agnes. The Pope forced him to return to Isemberga, and Agnes fled to the wilds of Brittany. Isemberga has now died, so Alaïde can return to her husband, the King of France. Arturo, mad with grief at this news, throws himself on his sword and dies. La straniera/Alaïde/Agnes in despair sings that the final blow has been struck and she seeks and waits for death. (Or sei pago, o ciel tremendo... / Or vibrato è il colpo estremo; “Now you are satisfied, O fearful Heaven... Now you have dealt your direst blow”). The crowd exclaims that her spirit has left her.