Teatro Nuovo 2019 Review: La Straniera
Christine Lyons, Steven LaBrie Headline A Fantastic Cast In Bellini’s Most Underrated OperaBy David Salazar
(Credit: Steven Pisano)
Bellini’s “La Straniera” is often cited as one of the composer’s unique works in his oeuvre.
Composed in 1828 and based on the novel “L’Étrangère” by Charles-Victor Prévot, it was his third opera, coming just a few years before some of the more popular repertory staples that we have come to know today.
Teatro Nuovo, which performed the opera at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater on July 17, 2019, made a compelling argument that it has every right to play alongside such masterworks as “Norma” and “I Puritani.”
Narratively the work is every bit as chaotic as “Puritani” and “Sonnambula” but musically it harkens toward a greater fount of creativity and psychological mining on the level of “Norma.” Like all of these great works, melody abounds in every note.
A Unique Work
The opera is in two acts and basically tells the story of Alaide, who lives outside of a town in Brittany. She is known as the stranger to the townspeople who don’t know what to make of her and respond with fear. Only Arturo, the Count of Ravenstel, is compelled by this strange women, abandoning his betrothed Isoletta on their wedding day, to find out more about Alaide. Meanwhile, her brother Valdeburgo, is seeking her out to protect her – she is in fact Agnes, who will be the next queen once the current queen Isemberga dies. The confusion over identities eventually leads to death and heartbreak.
The opera is unique in how it plays with operatic form, with only a cabaletta providing the most formal solo structure of the entire first act. Instead, we get freer musical passages, such as when Arturo wonders whether Alaide and Valdeburgo are in fact lovers. Ensembles instead take on the central musical weight of this act, which is quite a far cry from what we see in many of Bellini’s other operas. The second Act features more traditional structures, including a pezzo concertato at the climax and a final “mad scene” for the heroine.
What was most striking about the musical interpretation of this concert performance (albeit with singers entering and leave the stage with clear stage direction) was the depth and clarity that Bellini’s music had in the space.
The orchestra was set up in circular fashion with the first violins facing the stage and spread across the front of the orchestra. This enabled concertmaster Jakob Lehmann, not maestro Will Crutchfield (who was at the cembalo and could be seen conducting choral passages or solo wind moments) to lead the ensemble throughout the night. Meanwhile, the basses and celli were split across both sides of the orchestra with the woodwinds and brass similarly positioned. The result was a sense of envelopment as the sound floated into the audience. The balance from all the sections was crystal clear. Surround sound is probably an apt term to use here.
It also gave the entire performance a chamber-like atmosphere. With the concertmaster leading the way, there was a greater sense of interplay between the musicians, not only musically, but physically and it was this very sense of movement that gave the work a stronger sense of energy across the board. This extended to the interaction with the singers onstage, the orchestra very attuned to the vocal shifts in tempo. They never missed a beat and you never sensed that they would; it created a more captivating and collective musical whole.
One particular standout is the flute solo during Isoletta’s aria “Ah! Se non m’ami più” with devilish triplet passages that require tremendous clarity and support. Joseph Monticello pulled it off with great precision, earning a tremendous ovation at the close of the evening. But other soloists throughout the evening, including the horn section which imitated airy wind at one point, all managed standout moments that made a statement that Bellini’s music was anything but tunes with shallow orchestration, as is often noted of Bel Canto operas.
In the lead role soprano, Christine Lyons delivered as Alaide. She didn’t get off to the most auspicious of starts with the off-stage coloratura runs a bit sloppy and the pitch murky. Things didn’t really get much better in the initial duet with Arturo “Che miro! In queste soglie!” She started to ground her middle register but seemed a bit unsteady in the upper notes.
By the time she got to the first trio “Non ti son rivale,” her voice had settled and she managed a sturdy performance full of great intensity. She possesses a very full sound with a fast vibrato that moves well from top to bottom with great agility in the coloratura scattered around the piece. She also often utilized a glorious portamento to connect higher note with those residing in lower registers. In some of her finest moments, her vocal qualities bore a striking similarity to that of Sondra Radvanovsky in not only its colors but the phrasing of the portamenti. She also has a strong lower range though some of the notes tend to project in a more muted and muffled quality than the brightness in her upper range.
Lyons was at her best during the closing arias, “Ah! Lo ravviso!” and “Or sei pago,” of Acts one and two, with both scenes allowing her to dig into the desperation and passion of Alaide as she loses both men in her life. Both passages require the soprano to sing over a massive chorus, something that she is also asked to do at several other intervals. This made the opera’s final moments, with its devilish vocal ascensions to a high D flat the most impressive moment of her vocal output. Here she let her voice soar to its maximum potential, expressing the fury and madness that Alaide feels in this moment. Where many sopranos simply wait for the few notes before the ascension to the high D flat, Lyons sang every single one, pulling off the first high note perfectly. She seemed unable to find the repetition of the high note, but still managed to end the opera with a spectacular wave of sound that capped a splendid evening for her.
Arturo is the “hero” of the story, but in modern contexts, it is possible to view him as a villain; as Valdeburgo tells him later in the work, Arturo betrays a friend, deserts his betrothed, and won’t leave a woman alone despite her repeated rejections. He is guided by passion and the opera, on some level seeks to excuse him as a result. Tenor Derrek Stark definitely put an emphasis on this aspect of the character, giving him growing desperation.
This emotional crescendo was hinted at from the first F natural that he uttered – a glorious crescendo on “È sgombro il loco” that filled the house amply. He blended well with the other artists in the numerous duets and trios that he engaged in throughout the night, though he really put his stamp on “Che mai penso,” where the crazed potential of Arturo was given greater spotlight in the tenor’s voice. Starting off with softer sounds in the earlier phrases, the tenor’s hushed phrasing emphasized his own hesitation about his suspicions. But with the prodding from the surrounding chorus, his voice seemed to grow in its assertion, the tenor channeling his most powerful qualities on the climactic “Ah! Cessate! Non seguite coppia rea,” throwing off some interpolated high notes in the process. The growing rage was further developed in his ensuing scene with Valdeburgo where he really let his voice soar.
Seeing the dramatic intensity and conviction with which both Lyons and Stark delivered many of their passages, it would have been very interesting to see how a director crafted the complexities of the Arturo-Alaide relationship, especially in today’s social context.
Stealing the Show
As Valdeburgo, baritone Steven LaBrie practically stole the show every time he was onstage. The baritone has an earthier vocal quality that sounds a bit contained in the middle. But once he gets a chance to unleash the voice in his upper range, it blossoms into a strikingly poignant bright timbre. This was best displayed in his double aria “Sì li Sciogliete, o giudici” where the baritone interpolated a number of high notes that had everyone in the audience in complete rapture. At the close of this aria, he won the most potent applause of the entire evening.
The aria also featured the baritone with some incredibly polished legato phrasing; it added to the expansiveness of Bellini’s melodies and furthered this sense of the character’s nobility and rank. He also put on similarly glorious display during the opera’s very first duet, “Io la vidi” alongside soprano Alina Tamborini. “Giovin rosa, il vergin seno” is one of the opera’s first glorious melodies and the baritone delivered with a sense of delicacy and gentility. Other interpretations might place a greater deal of emphatic authority on the line, but LaBrie’s rendering made him a comforting companion to Isoletta. It also established the baritone’s gentle approach that would permeate his overall interpretation of the role and would be replicated in similarly tender passages with Alaide. In this way, his vocal approach also contrasted with the more desperate passion Stark lent Arturo.
Speaking of contrasts, soprano Alina Tamborini represented a wonderful vocal counterpoint to Lyons. Where the former had a rounder and edgier quality to her singing, Tamborini’s voice was delicate and light as a feather. This quality lent her Isoletta a greater sense of vulnerability and innocence that the provided the ideal counterpoint to the world-weariness of the future queen. Isoletta gets the opening duet to make a quick impression and then disappears until the second act. Tamborini took full advantage of this opportunity granted and blended beautifully with LaBrie’s singing. But she really stood out in the two repetitions of “Ogni speme a the rapita che ripen nell’amor,” the pianissimo singing creating a haunting effect. When she returned later in the opera for her big aria “Ah! non m’ami più” she displayed a sense of flowing legato line coupled with sublime tonal qualities. It was also fantastic to see her voice at its maximum voluminous potential during the ensuing ensemble alongside the other major soloists and chorus.
Of the comprimario roles, tenor Isaac Frishman took on the role of the villainous Osburgo. While he doesn’t really get much outside of a few recitativo passages, the tenor made the most of his opportunities, using delicate vocal qualities to craft an insidious portrayal. It contrasted with the more stoic and firm vocal qualities of Vincent Grana as Il Priore, stamping his authority on the scene in which he promises to protect Alaide from harm. Finally, bass-baritone Dorian McCall had a more rugged sound as Montolino, Isoletta’s father.
In all, this was a performance of the highest order, presented in a setting that was absolutely perfect. Even without any staging to speak out, the music’s power and the interpreters’ own commitment brought it to vivid and exciting life. Not only is this a big victory for the artists and Teatro Nuovo’s mission, but to date, this is undeniably one of the finest musical moments in New York of the summer.