Bellini’s La straniera, coming on the heels of his first great success, Il pirata, absolutely solidified the composer’s reputation. He had received 150 ducats for Pirata; his fee for Straniera was 1,000. Despite the gaping holes in the ridiculous plot (which were present in the novel upon which Felice Romani based his libretto), both composer and librettist realized that there were enough situations and fervent feelings to make the work viable. And indeed – “A frenzy…what wild enthusiasm” reported the baritone after the first performance; “it seemed like a revolution.” Heightened emotions, as fans of Norma and I puritani know, are Bellini’s stock-in-trade; they bring out his passions and his most gorgeous melodies. Verdi praised its “long, long, long melodies” and Wagner wrote of its “true passion and feeling.”

Christine Lyons (Alaide) © Steven Pisano
Christine Lyons (Alaide)
© Steven Pisano

If you must know, the “Stranger” of the title is Agnèse, Queen of France, whose King has had to hide her for political reasons. She lives in a hut and wanders the countryside alone, veiled and silent, awakening the suspicions of the whole town, who nevertheless never try to find out who she is. Arturo, betrothed to Isoletta, has fallen in love with Alaide (Agnese’ alias), and vice-versa; Alaide’s brother, Valdeburgo (not his real name and in disguise) hangs around the area keeping an eye on Alaide/Agnese. Arturo and Valdeburgo duel and the latter falls in the lake and is believed dead but is resurrected after the interval. As Arturo is about to marry Isoletta, he is distracted by the Stranger, dumps Isoletta, and suddenly, the local Prior tells everyone that the Stranger is the Queen of France. Arturo kills himself.

The recently formed Teatro Nuovo, one might say, is a fresh incarnation of Will Crutchfield’s Bel Canto at Caramoor which pleased opera lovers for 20 years. Both scholarly and passionate, with singers and instrumentalists schooled in the performance style of the Bel Canto, it presented only one performance (in concert) of La straniera in New York City (another was upstate) and made a fine case for this near-masterpiece which has, at least in the United States, gotten lost in the bel canto revival.

Teatro Nuovo © Steven Pisano
Teatro Nuovo
© Steven Pisano

The first thing one noticed was the positioning of the orchestra (not in a pit) in the manner of 19th century performance practice: the front row of violinists with their backs to the audience faced the remainder of the violinists. The other strings were divided on either side of the centrally placed fortepiano and the woodwinds faced one another with horns bunched upper left. Furthermore, the concertmaster acted as co-conductor with Mr Crutchfield at the keyboard. That job fell to Jacob Lehmann, sitting center on a raised seat, facing all the others; he placed his violin and bow very high (eye level) and cued the band. This turned the performance into a collaborative effort and brought out a sound that was remarkably present and clear. It was difficult to ignore the effect.

In La straniera, Bellini truly began to break with the tropes of the operas of Rossini. He introduced ariosos into recitatives which added to the melodic flow of what had previously been dry conversations and reduced drastically the number of solely decorative passages – many melodies were entirely unembellished, without runs, roulades or melismas. Dramatic situations were not interrupted by vocal pyrotechnics, save when needed to underline a situation. The opera is filled with duets for various combinations of voices, and the score is dotted with ensembles, some partially a capella. There is no aria for the tenor (Bellini had to settle when his favorite tenor, Rubini, was not available), but the baritone (Valdeburgo) and (Isoletta) each have one, and Alaide has a remarkable pair of showpieces. There were some light, tasteful embellishments but Mr Crutchfield opted to disallow stratospheric cadential high notes, allowing us to savor Bellini's intentions.

Derrek Stark (Arturo) © Steven Pisano
Derrek Stark (Arturo)
© Steven Pisano

The singers were more than up to the demands of their music. Derrek Stark's tenor was bright and attractive, and his delivery passionate. One wished he had a few more high notes to toss around. Baritone Steven LaBrie proved a powerhouse as Valdeburgo (probably Bellini's biggest role for baritone), lacking only some dynamic shading. Alina Tamborini, in the insanely underdeveloped role of Isoletta, exhibited an interestingly shiny tone and tense vibrato. Her aria, with difficult flute obbligato (stunningly played by Joseph Monticello), was a show stopper. The mysterious Alaide was soprano Christine Lyons, with strength and a fearless attack at both ends of her voice; she could have used a more fragile demeanor, but her final scene created an uproar.

Chorus Master Rolando Sanz deserved the ovation he received but the truly wild applause was reserved for our co-conductors. Together, Messrs Crutchfield and Lehmann kept a tight rein on all involved, without sacrificing expression. La straniera, a novelty, proved a fine entertainment.

*****