Bellini's fourth opera, La Straniera, marked out the composer as one of the leading figures of the post-Rossini generation. Indeed, he then went on to receive a commission for I Capuleti e I Montecchi that far surpassed the record amount received by Rossini for his final Italian score.
Straniera is one of the pieces that most defines Bellini status as the instigator of a revolution in vocal technique in Italian opera. Gone are the incessant fioriture, the unmotivated decorations and the generation of excitement by unsubtle means; instead, the composer spins out long lines and focuses on the lyric element as the main tool of expression. Risible though the plot is at times, this vocal technique allows Bellini to render the main character a woman of extreme nobility and dignity.
The story is too complicated to relate coherently in a few words, but in short it involves the fate of a woman known as 'La straniera', the 'stranger' of the title. Her real name is Agnese but she is known to Count Arturo of Ravenstel (who is engaged of Isoletta, daughter of the Lord of Montolino) as Alaide. Agnese is the daughter of a courtier of the Duke of Pomerania and is married to the French king, Philippe-Auguste, who, unfortunately, is already married to Isemberga of Denmark. This scenario is confusing enough before the plot of the opera even begins; to illustrate the bizarre twists and turns it takes, it's probably enough to relate that the final curtain comes down on the news that the King's first wife has died, making Alaide the Queen of France, while Arturo falls on his sword in grief at the knowledge that he has been unfair to Alaide (who was faithful to her husband). Bearing all of this in mind, it's no wonder that the work hasn't held any sort of place on the stage: how could one do it with any lucidity?
Nevertheless, Bellini is at his finest musically in the opera, and it's no wonder that singers such as Scotto, Fleming, Caballé, Cigna and even Jenny Lind have taken it on. In the title role of Opera Rara's new recording, Italian soprano Patrizia Ciofi brings the composer's strong characterisation of Alaide to the fore, and triumphs. At times, she's clearly taxed to her limits in a role that is rather demanding for her equipment, but her beauty of tone and absolute commitment make the numbers in which she appears utterly compelling.
However, I must confess to having reservations about the other soloists, who aren't captured at their best. Whereas the concert performance at the Royal Festival Hall that followed the sessions last year was gripping with intensity, here I find that the recording sounds rather studio-bound. Mark Stone, who performed fierily in the concert, seems hard pushed in the role of Valdeburgo, lacking the velvet, Italianate timbre for the music, while Dario Schmunck is similarly out of his comfort zone when the line takes him above the stave. Both singers understand the style required of them, and they perform well with their colleagues, but the solo numbers are fractionally exposing. Enkelejda Shkosa has a full-blooded approach to the role of Isoletta, but there's a lack of refinement apparent on the CD that was less of a concern in the live performance. Nevertheless, Graeme Broadbent, Roland Wood and Aled Hall offer fine support in smaller roles, and none of these reservations seriously detracts from the overall result.
David Parry's conducting of the soloists, the Geoffrey Mitchell Choir and the London Philharmonic is impeccable, not merely propelling the music forward but loosening the reins where the singers need time to maximise the expression. It's in the large numbers, such as the final quartet and closing scene of Act II, that the recording is at its best.
Reviews of Opera Rara recordings:
Thomas: La Cour de Celimene (June 2008)
Donizetti: Imelda de' Lambertazzi (March 2008)
Pacini: Alessandro nell'Indie (February 2008)
La Serenata (November 2007)
Entre Nous: Celebrating Offenbach (September 2007)
Rossini: La donna del lago (June 2007)
Mercadante: Maria Stuarda, regina di Scozia (April 2007)
Donizetti: Dom Sebastien (April 2007)
Pauline Viardot and Friends (April 2007)