Valiant but tentative: La straniera at the Concertgebouw

La straniera ’s rarity on the opera stage is often blamed on
Felice Romani’s libretto, perhaps a tad unfairly. Neither plot nor
subject matter is more unlikely than your average early nineteenth century
Italian opera. Like Rossini’s La donna del lago and
Donizetti’s La favorite, La straniera features an
alluring leading lady with royal affiliations in idyllic and/or gothic
surroundings. The plot line is stop-and-go because of the lengthy scenes.
Bellini intersperses his melodious arias and scampering cabalettas with
half-sung recitatives. This canto declamato, innovative at the 1829
première, requires fine singing actors to set it alight. The many tropes
in the plot are a weakness: bucolic surroundings, persecution of outsiders,
love versus duty, a love triangle (or two), and more. However, Bellini’s
spicy brass and percussion and gracefully coiling melodies, effortlessly
evoking everything from crystal lakes to a vigilante mob, almost justify this
thematic patchwork.

The plot is tenuously historical. Around the end of the twelfth century,
Philip II of France became a bigamist when the Pope refused to recognize the
annulment of his first marriage. After sending Ingeborg of Denmark away after
their wedding night, Philip married Agnes of Merania. Brandishing
excommunication and worse, the Pope forced him to take Ingeborg back. The real
Agnes died of a broken heart, ending Philip’s papal problems, but at the
end of the opera it is Ingeborg who dies, and Agnese, aka Alaide, the
“foreigner” of the title, is revealed as the rightful queen.
Because Alaide lives alone in a hut, the local peasants naturally accuse her of
witchcraft. Equally naturally, a young nobleman, Arturo, becomes smitten with
her. Her brother has moved close by, to watch over her, disguised as Baron
Valdeburgo, and when he advises Arturo to forget her, the latter takes him for
a rival and wounds him in a duel. Alaide is tried for Valdeburgo’s murder
before the Prior of the Knights Hospitallers. To complicate matters, Arturo is
engaged to Isoletta, the daughter of the local lord. Although she is in love
with him, Alaide urges Arturo to go through with the wedding. He almost does,
but abandons Isoletta at the altar, only to fall on his sword when he learns
Alaide’s true identity. The opera ends in her anguished final aria,
aflutter with trills and hopefully ending in a cracking high D-flat.

Soprano Annick Massis held on to that glorious final note for no less than
eight seconds. Indeed, her top notes were piercing and pleasingly metallic.
After a quavering opening cadenza, her technique settled, revealing an
impressive virtuosic toolbox. Despite less than steadfast pitch, her phrasing
was sensitive and stylish. Unfortunately, her voice was too small and
soft-grained for the role, and her diction not sharp enough to compensate for
the lack of dramatic scale. She deftly negotiated chromatic runs, but they were
rendered uneven by timbral differences in the registers — her voice loses
quality the lower it goes. Ms Massis was frequently inaudible in the big
ensembles. In fact, none of the singers except Alisa Kolosova had the volume to
match conductor Giancarlo Andretta’s decibels. Although her first
appearance had some pitch issues, with her rich, shiny mezzo and emotional
intensity Ms Kolosova was immediately a flesh-and-blood Isoletta. Her heartfelt
rejected bride aria was one of the few moments when this mostly earthbound
performance took flight.

With most of the singers glued to the score most of the time, acting, vocal
and otherwise, was inhibited. Tenor Leonardo Capalbo tried his best, and mostly
succeeded, in transmitting Arturo’s pain. He was sweetly ardent in the
love duet and thereafter increasingly distraught, his clear enunciation
injecting drama into the fast strettas. He has a very attractive,
light lyric voice with a tendency to press at forte and to end beautifully
emitted phrases with unsupported notes. His was a rather exasperating
performance — copious natural talent and a lovely mezza-voce, but also
some decidedly unlovely pushing. Like Mr Capalbo, baritone Luca Grassi had
excellent diction, but his grayscale performance suffered from unreliable
intonation and was relentlessly dour. That is, until his animated Act II aria,
“Meco tu vieni, o misera” when Valdeburgo, presumed dead, appears
at the trial to acquit his sister. Supporting roles were well-sung. Bass
Massimiliano Catellani was a dignified Montolino, Isoletta’s father.
Refreshingly unhitched from his score, bass-baritone Roberto Lorenzi sang a
commanding Prior with a voice of melted chocolate. It is a pity that Osburgo,
Arturo’s confidant, sings mostly with the chorus. In his few solo lines,
Luis Gomes displayed a pliant, brightly coloured tenor. Hopefully, Amsterdam
will get to hear him in a bigger role.

Mr Andretta led the Royal Flemish Philharmonic at a forward tilt, with
rhythmic tightness, but the overall impression was one of underprepared
commitment. Uncertain entrances and tempo tugs-of-war indicated insufficient
rehearsal time. It took a while for the men of the Netherlands Radio Choir to
line up properly and the chorus as a whole lacked finish. Similarly, the
orchestra showed little interpretative flair, despite many fine instrumental
intros, including fragrant flute and oboe solos. Mr Andretta led thrilling
crescendos, but elsewhere gloopy strings and matt dynamics robbed the score of
its airiness. In spite of these reservations, the NTR ZaterdagMatinee deserves
high praise for programming this kind of repertoire. The loudly enthusiastic
Concertgebouw audience would certainly welcome more of it.

Jenny Camilleri

Cast and production information:

Alaide: Annick Massis; Isoletta: Alisa Kolosova; Arturo: Leonardo
Capalbo; Baron Valdeburgo: Luca Grassi; the Duke of Montolino: Massimiliano
Catalani; the Prior of the Knights Hospitallers: Roberto Lorenzi; Osburgo: Luis
Gomez. Netherlands Radio Choir, Royal Flemish Philharmonic. Conductor:
Giancarlo Andretta. Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, Saturday, 14th May

image_description=Annick Massis [Photo by Gianni Ugolini]
product_title=Valiant but tentative: La straniera at the Concertgebouw
product_by=A review by Jenny Camilleri
product_id=Above: Annick Massis [Photo by Gianni Ugolini]