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Vincenzo BELLINI (1801-1835)
La straniera (The stranger) - melodramma in two acts (1829)
Alaide, The stranger - Patrizia Ciofi (soprano); Il barone di Valdeburgo – Alaide’s brother - Mark Stone, (baritone); Arturo, Count of Ravenstel - Darío Schmunck (tenor); Isoletta, daughter of Il signore di Montolino betrothed to Arturo - Enkelejda Shkosa (mezzo); Il Priore - Graeme Broadbent (bass); Il signore di Montolino - Roland Wood (bass); Osburgo - Aled Hall (tenor)
Geoffrey Mitchell Choir
London Philharmonic Orchestra/David Parry
OPERA RARA ORC38 [61.56 + 69.58]
Experience Classicsonline

Many corporate organisations come into being and give themselves a name that they hope is related to their function. Few get it as right as Opera Rara with the declared aim of its progenitors to bring forgotten opera into the public domain via performance and recording. Much, but not all, forgotten opera derives from the first fifty years of nineteenth century Italy. Every city of that then divided country in that period had at least one opera house, and often more, providing entertainment enjoyed by large sections of the populace irrespective of social class. In their first ten or so opera recordings, Opera Rara focused on the works of Donizetti. They have continued to do so with two more scheduled for issue in the coming year. However, the great virtue of their work has also been the revelations of the operatic compositional skills of the likes of Mayr, tutor and supporter of Donizetti, Mercadante, Meyerbeer and Pacini among others. These are composers whose music would otherwise remain mere comment in the pages of Grove or elsewhere. Opera Rara’s expansion into the greatest compositional giant of the earliest decades of the period, Rossini, was heralded with recordings of some of his rarely heard Naples Opera Seria. Rossini has always had operatic comic works in the repertoire in much the same way as a few of Donizetti’s of the same genre alongside Lucia di Lammermoor. This new recording of La straniera marks another chapter in the company’s further evolution. It is the first complete opera recording they have made of Vincenzo Bellini, the third great composer in Italy in the first decades of the primo ottocento.
Bellini died at the young age of thirty-four, leaving a legacy of only ten operatic titles. Despite this his name stands alongside that of his distinguished compatriots Rossini and Donizetti. Three of his operas, La sonnambula and Norma (both 1831), and his last work, I puritani (1835), have long been recognised as classics of the bel canto repertoire. There has also been the occasional studio recording of I Capuletti e i Montecchi (1830), Bellini’s ‘take’ on the Shakespeare tragedy. We should also remember Beatrice di Tenda (1833). Those named are the last five of Bellini’s operatic works. Of the earlier five only one has a studio recording, Il pirata (1827), set down to accommodate Montserrat Caballé and her husband (EMI). Yet of Bellini’s first five operatic compositions, discounting the first, a student exercise, two were premiered at La Scala, then as now Italy’s premiere house, and one at Naples’s San Carlo, second only to Milan’s premier theatre. This would indicate early recognition of a composer of works of some quality. However, with the noted exception of Il pirata, up until this studio recording of La straniera, opera-lovers have had to depend on various live performance recordings to hear Bellini’s music from this earliest period in his relatively short compositional career. As well as having the intrusion of applause to disturb the dramatic impetus, these live recordings are often of variable recorded quality, and some of doubtful provenance, albeit involving singers of justifiable renown such as Renato Scotto and Montserrat Caballé as Alaide in La straniera. The fact that La straniera, has drawn such renowned interpreters will give the first clue as to the quality of Bellini’s writing in this his fourth opera.
The overwhelming success of Bellini’s student opera, Adelson e Salvini (1825) despite its all-male conservatoire cast, led to a commission to write a work for the following season at the San Carlo. After several delays due to deaths in the extended Royal Family, and including a name change to Bianca e Gernando, from Bianca e Fernando, in respect of another Royal, it too became a resounding success. It also brought Bellini into contact with the tenor Rubini whose vocal skills and extended range was to play an important part in several of his operas. More importantly, this second opera drew Bellini to the attention of Domenico Barbaja, the impresario who had taken Rossini to Naples. By now, he was not only the impresario of the Royal Theatres of Naples, but also of La Scala, Milan and of the leading theatre in Vienna. Barbaja invited Bellini to compose for La Scala. Bellini’s third opera, Il pirata, was premiered there in October 1827. The librettist was Felice Romani who was to versify all Donizetti future operas until the last, prior to which the colleagues, and by then firm friends, had fallen out. Il pirata was an international success. Despite the presence of Rubini, Bellini made a significant attempt to move away from the Rossinian manner of florid decoration towards more dramatic effect in his music. As well as this move there are also signs of the long and flowing melodies that were to become the composer’s hallmark.
Immediately after the premiere of Il pirata Bellini was approached by Merelli, then impresario in Genoa, and who, fifteen or so years later was to give Verdi his chance at La Scala. For Genoa Bellini re-wrote Bianca e Gernando under the title by which it is now known, Bianca e Fernando. It too was a great success and this led to another commission from Barbaja for Bellini, this time to open the Carnival Season at La Scala on 26 December 1828. However, due to Romani’s illness the new opera, La straniera, Bellini’s fourth, was not premiered until 14 February 1829.
La straniera is based on a contemporary novel, L’Étrangčre staged as a spoken play in Naples in 1825. Set around the thirteenth century in Brittany, the stranger of the title role is a mysterious woman, dressed in black, who has come to live on the island of Motolino where she lives in a cottage deep in the forest. The local peasants know her as Alaide. They suppose her to be a witch, little suspecting that she is the cast-off wife of the King of France. The King had married her bigamously and, threatened with excommunication, had then forsaken and banished her. Arturo, engaged to Isoletta, becomes enchanted by Alaide to whom he declares his love. She tries to send him away, but Arturo becomes jealous of her visitor little realising that it is her brother known as Valdeburgo. He fights and wounds Valdeburgo leaving him for dead. Alaide tells Arturo of Valdeburgo’s true identity and goes to seek her brother. She is covered in his blood when the local villagers arrive. They accuse her of killing him. Seeking to safeguard Arturo she accepts this accusation. When she is put on trial Arturo confesses to the murder. Valdeburgo appears at the trial, very much alive, and persuades Arturo to go through with the wedding to Isoletta. Arturo agrees on condition that the brother brings Alaide to the church. All ends in tragedy as it is revealed who Alaide is and Arturo falls on his sword.
Bellini did not want to repeat the dramatic form of Il pirata, and other contemporary traditions. He asked for plenty of dramatic situations from Romani as well as a major contribution from the chorus. This desire to break from convention means that there is no entrance aria for Alaide or Arturo but a short orchestral introduction followed by a barcarolle-type chorus (CD 1 tr.1). Elsewhere there is much declamatory singing and recitative. Whilst there are three arias within dramatic situations for Alaide, and one each for Isoletta and Valdeburgo, there is none for the tenor Arturo. For the role of Arturo, Bellini desperately wanted Rubini. Even though he was contracted to Barbaja it was for Naples not La Scala and the impresario would not relent. Bellini’s doubts about the contracted tenor may explain why Arturo has no aria. That being said, for the following year’s revival when Bellini did have the services of Rubini, and wrote extensive transpositions to show off the latter’s vocal prowess, he did not write a tenor aria then either. These facts are buried in the introductory essay by Benjamin Walton, Lecturer of Music, Jesus College, Cambridge, who also wrote the synopsis.
With the matter of the booklet I come to a major gripe about this issue. Opera Rara is justifiably renowned for the presentation of their wares and the supporting booklet information. In this instance there is a lot that could and should have been done better for an opera that will be of interest to Bellini and bel canto enthusiasts whilst known intimately by relatively few. First, there are only 11 tracks for the 79 minutes of act 1 and a mere 7 for the 61 minutes of act 2. This paucity compares poorly with 22 for act 1 and 15 for an abbreviated act 2 of the 1968 Parma performance featuring Renato Scotto and included in the recently issued set of all Bellini’s operas from Dynamic (to be reviewed). The Opera Rara paucity allows no separation of scenes and the clear delineation of the handful of arias. Although Walton lists the arias for the different characters (pp 24-26), these cannot be found by looking at the track listings (Pages 5-6). Worse, Valdeburgo’s aria in scene IV of act 2 (p 138 of libretto) comes in the middle of a fifteen-minute track where his name is not included in the list of characters involved! Valdeburgo’s name is also missing from the grouping of tracks 2-4 that includes his eleven minute long duet with Arturo (both page 6). The whole complication could have been resolved with more generous tracking and a track-related synopsis. The synopsis recognises the presence of Valdeburgo in act 2 scene 1, but gives no mention at all of Isoletta’s aria (CD 2 tr.4). As politicians might put it: lack of joined-up government!
The frustrations mentioned above are all the greater for they detract from the overall understanding and enjoyment of this first studio recording of the work. This particularly galling given the excellent conducting of David Parry and the singing of the Geoffrey Mitchell Choir both of which are outstanding. The solo singing is more variable. In the eponymous role Patrizia Ciofi sings with light flexible tone and secure intonation. She spent the fist ten years of her career in her native Italy and only after 2000 did her quality carry her further afield. In his essay Walton describes the creator of the role, Henriette Méric–Lalande as a dramatic soprano (p 13). Bellini knew her voice well, having written for her the prima donna roles in both Bianca and Il pirata. Ciofi is no dramatic soprano, more a light lyric coloratura as indicated by her recent debut role of Amina in La Sonnambula at the Wiener Staatsoper. There are times when more heft at the top of the voice in particular is called for in this work. As already indicated Alaide has three arias although the first is more an arioso. The others appear in the finales of the two acts to which she brings plenty of characterisation and lovely tone. Patrizia Ciofi rather reminds me of the youngish Joan Sutherland: lovely to listen to although lacking some clarity of diction. As her brother Valdeburgo, Mark Stone sings strongly and with good characterisation in his aria (CD 2 tr1, end part) and in the two confrontations with Arturo. Elsewhere he can be a little monochrome and wooden. The Argentinean Darío Schmunck as Arturo has plenty to sing but no aria, although there are times when the listener might be tempted to think one is likely to break out. His voice is lyric with a welcome Italianate squilla, but like Ciofi he is stretched in the heaviest passages. As Isoletta, Arturo’s deserted fiancée, the Albanian Enkelejda Shkosa sings with low mezzo sonority but with a quickish vibrato that will trouble some more than others (CD 4). As the Prior Graeme Broadbent sings with strength and sonority. Roland Wood, in the small role of Montolino, is dry-voiced; where has that sappy tone gone that was heard in his admired college assumption of the title role in Verdi’s Falstaff?
La straniera, as Bellini intended, is one of the pieces that most clearly defines the composer’s status as the instigator of a change in vocal technique in Italian bel canto. Gone are the florid decorations without dramatic context. However, at this stage of his compositional maturity the work lacks the composer’s later ability to spin out long lines and melodies. There are, however, sufficient clues as to that future to make listening, at the very least, interesting.
Robert J Farr


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