Opera Rara has a reputation for bringing largely forgotten works back to the public's attention and they did it yet again with this performance of Bellini's La straniera.
Indeed, the accumulative power of the piece is so great that this excellent performance made me wonder why it ever left the repertoire in the first place. Musically rich and dramatically imposing, La straniera ('The Stranger') features one of Bellini's greatest roles for a prima donna. In this almost ideal performance, Italian soprano Patrizia Ciofi gave every last ounce of energy her petite frame could provide and more than nailed the title part. While this is not territory she would venture into every night - it was without a doubt a huge effort, which is not to say that her performance was in any way effortful - it was nothing short of exhilarating to witness such a talented singer at the peak of her abilities.
Although it was perhaps a risk casting the role against type - Ciofi's illustrious forebears on live recordings include more dramatic sopranos such as Montserrat Caballé and Renata Scotto - Ciofi's smooth lyric voice actually suited Bellini's very pure classical lines very well. She had a grasp of the coloratura writing, such as in her off-stage, wordless cadenza at the beginning, and her vocal resources were extraordinary in this hugely demanding role. But what really impressed me was her engagement with the words in every number. Alaide - the stranger of the title - faces turmoil of various kinds: the knowledge that she has to remain in exile until her husband's first wife dies at the end, the news that her brother has been killed by her lover (though he survives, in fact), having to send her lover to marry someone else. Ciofi conveyed her dignity, her nobility and her intelligence throughout while firing out some of the most spectacular vocal pyrotechnics I've heard in a long time.
Alaide's lover, Arturo, is another extremely taxing role, and tenor Darío Schmunck more than lived up to it. He has to convey the character's conflicting duties - love for Alaide, respect for his betrothed, Isoletta - while coping with some unusual writing for the voice (more arioso than aria at times). Schmunck's easy tenor voice enhanced an emotional and generous performance.
Even more fired up was Mark Stone, one of this country's most promising young singers, in the part of Valdeburgo (Alaide's brother). Much of the role is written around or above middle C and not only did Stone remain firm-toned throughout, he also kept opting for high embellishments at the end of arias, proving his ability in the bel canto. He also expressed affection for his sister and his outrage at Arturo's behaviour very directly, ensuring that although this was a concert performance, we were still witnessing an opera.
Completing a secure line-up, mezzo Enkelejda Shkosa made the potentially uninteresting character of Isoletta into a person of feeling. Her introductory duet and second-act aria were equally impressive; like Ciofi, she really projected both her voice and her personality.
Graeme Broadbent was an especially fine Prior, and Roland Wood (Montolino) and Aled Hall (Osburgo) more than stood up to their classy colleagues.
Conductor David Parry's relationship with Opera Rara goes back many years and his sympathetic balance of energy and detail in this performance explained why. Bellini's score is fascinating and demands a lot of the conductor. For instance, the chorus is unusually prominent and comments on the action, often condemning Alaide without particular justification, and Parry channelled the Geoffrey Mitchell Choir's energies in the right direction. The London Philharmonic was alert throughout, playing splendidly and with a sense of drama. A lot of the signals in the score are in gestures such as hunting horns tracking down a criminal or in the 6/8 time signature for the opening boating scene on the lake ('Voga, voga'), and the LPO always went beyond the notes, communicating the music's message as well.
Overall, a splendid occasion that whetted my appetite for next year's Opera Rara-LPO collaboration, a concert performance of Donizetti's Parisina with Patrizia Ciofi.