Opera in two acts. Running Time: 2 hours 21 minutes.
Okay, so I will admit that this is my favourite Bellini opera. Full disclosure: It will get an “A” at the end of this review because I think it is just awesome, although it isn’t perfect. Another interesting bit is that although this is bel canto, it lacks most of the vocal ornamentation usually found in the genre. Also, the tenor lead never gets an aria. The recording is the one with Patrizia Ciofi in the titular role.
PLOT: Montolino (wherever that is, Italy or France), circa 1198. The “stranger” is Alaide (soprano), really the morganatic Queen Agnes of France in disguise because the Pope has excommunicated her husband over his marriage to her. Things are complicated when Arturo, Count of Ravenstel (tenor), falls in love with her while being engaged to Isoletta (mezzo-soprano), daughter of the Count of Montolino (bass). Arturo at first thinks he has a rival in Baron Valdeburgo (baritone), but (spoiler alert) it turns out he is actually Agnes’ biological brother. It goes without saying that the wedding doesn’t go as planned.
(NOTE: Video link is part 1 of 4 and consists of the first 42.5 minutes of the opera, the rest is also on youtube but the opera is also available on Amazon Prime).
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1 (79 minutes)
Scene 1: Courtyard of the castle of Montolino.
2: The opening scene starts off with a banging brief introduction from the orchestra and then a very strong opening chorus as the townspeople get excited about the wedding of Isoletta and Arturo all to a sailing on the river melody because that is what they are up to **.
13: Isoletta is worried about this mysterious “stranger woman” who lurks in the nearby forests and is worried Arturo may go for her. This leads to an amazing nine minute combo number (first duet, then duet con coro, then quartet con coro) between the bride-to-be and Baron Valdeburgo. The chorus follows Alaide as she runs away to her hut and cruelly hurl accusations of witchcraft at her. Then Isoletta’s father comes on backing his daughter’s concerns and the number crescendos into the quartet con coro as Osburgo, Arturo’s friend comes on and the three men try to cheer up Isoletta ***. The number is operatic platinum and musically flawless in its multi-dimensional effect. In a recitative Osburgo admits to the Count that Arturo has a fascination with hermits in general and promises to steer his friend back to his intended.
Scene 2: Alaide/Agnes’ cabin.
24: After a two minute orchestral interlude of mournful but beautiful music (led by an oboe) as the scenery changes we come upon Arturo in the distance, then he breaks in to the cabin, looking for any info that might tell him who she is. He finds a painter of her in royal robes and jewels but doesn’t put two and two together. Suddenly, Agnes can be heard in the distance bemoaning her fateful life in a gorgeous lament while also giving thanks for her present solitude ***.
28: When she arrives she discovers him in her home and at first orders him out but he keeps on pleading that he loves her and wants to help her but she claims that there is a barrier between them which makes his presence and disregard for her privacy unbearable in a brilliant recitative **.
32: In an extended (11 minute) duet *** he tells her she can keep her secrets from him but she can stop him from loving her while she declares that her love is condemned on earth but eventually admits that although she wants him never to return to her but that to forget him will prove impossible. He tells her that he would follow her anywhere and she prophetically states that his wish will destroy him.
38: Hunting horns herald a near by party which causes Agnes to demand he leave at once but as she warns him never to see her again he declares that their lives and fates are tied to each other forever **.
Scene 3: Forest scene.
43: Finally, after so much exhilarating music we get a more standard number from the all-male hunters *. Osburgo interjects.
45: In the last minute and a half the chorus turns into a patter time which is really good **.
47: Valdeburgo and Arturo meet each other to a pleasant accompaniment from the strings *. The former tries to persuade Arturo to return to Isoletta but Arturo refuses declaring that he does not love her, but he asks Valdeburgo to meet the woman he does love and vows to leave her if Valdeburgo deems her unworthy.
52: Agnes comes out of her hut, Valdeburgo almost calls her by name and tells Arturo that he can not marry Alaide under any circumstances, it is simply impossible, no explanation. There is something interesting in the woodwinds here * before Arturo attacks Valdeburgo as a rival and both he and Alaide have to swear that he technically has no rival strictly speaking.
54: The trio proper ** starts off with a warm lower string accompaniment as Valdeburgo dissuades
57: Suddenly there is orchestral scampering and the last three and a half minutes are spent with Agnes confusingly admitting that Arturo’s life means so much to her while both she and Valdeburgo order him to leave ***.
Scene 4: Another part of the forest by a lake, the hut visible.
61: Frightening forest mood music, the sort one would find in a really well scored dark fantasy film, starts off the scene **.
63, 66: Arturo comes on still thinking Valdeburgo is his rival for Alaide **. This is probably the closest thing Arturo comes to an aria but he is interrupted in less than two minutes by Osburgo and his men *** who tell him in a rather good chorus that they have evidence that Alaide and Valdeburgo are planning to run away together which infuriates the crazy Arturo even more.
68: Then Agnes and Valdeburgo are spied upon by Arturo as they conclude their escape plans ***. It is musically beautiful but weren’t we just here seven minutes ago?
71: When Agnes returns to her hut, Arturo attacks Valdeburgo as Alaide’s lover. They duel and Valdeburgo is left for dead (wounded) in the lake **
73: Agnes comes out of the hut and is told by Arturo that her lover is dead. Horrified, she has enough sense to reveal to Arturo that Valdeburgo is her brother ***. Arturo jumps into the lake in an attempt to save Valdeburgo.
74: A crowd is alerted by the shouting and find Alaide alone with Arturo’s bloody sword and arrest her for killing Valdeburgo herself. She has just enough time for a wonderful five minute coloratura aria con coro before being dragged off for trial ***.
ACT 2 (62 minutes)
Scene 1: Before the Tribunal of the Hospitallers.
9: The act just sort of begins with a conversation between Osburgo and the Prior before a veiled Alaide is brought in for trial amid not too much fanfare from the orchestra . She is asked to address the court and does so with stateliness, but the trial starts to border into the realm of musical ennui, at least when one can not actually see the goings on on stage as when listening to a recording which so far this act has consisted of seven minutes of recitative. Osburgo testifies against her and when asked for her name she claims only “la straniera”. Arturo arrives about four and a half minutes into the proceedings and declares Alaide innocent and that he is the guilty one who thought he was slaying a rival. Everything looks bad now for both of them until… Valdeburgo arrives alive (!), shocks everyone and reveals that he fell into the lake during single combat with Arturo in an okay aria con coro which is at first more drama than musically beautiful until suddenly he has a second go which is just lovely **. The chorus is overjoyed as well.
11: The Prior orders that Alaide reveal her name but instead she allows for her veil to be lifted just for him privately. He sees her face and gasps, recognizing her as the Queen but she immediately orders him to be silent. He entrusts her to Valdeburgo who continues his lovely aria ***. The scene ends with a recitative in which the Prior tells Osburgo that because of his false witness he will be watched.
Scene 2: In the forest, close to Alaide’s cabin.
17, 20: We get a return of some music from the first act * and then this racing viola as Arturo tries to enter the cabin again and is stopped by Valdeburgo who tells him that in order to preserve the peace for his sister Arturo must never see her again and he should go back to Isoletta (remember her?) and marry her **. Although Arturo goes on about how tortured his heart is he agrees to go through with the wedding to Isoletta as long as Alaide attends. Valdeburgo agrees to this and Arturo leaves.
Scene 3: Isoletta’s chambres.
29: The scene *** starts with a two minute interlude that is so modern sounding it could have come from a late Verdi opera.
31: Isoletta’s aria starts with a gentle but sad recitative ** as she prepares for her wedding but feels so unloved and ignored. Only the flute solo that follows around seems to care about her. Her feelings are very understandable, Arturo has totally ignored her at best and has declared outright hatred of her at times for no reason. Also there is the fact that although we are already 110 minutes into this 141 minute opera, we have only seen Isoletta for 12 minutes of act 1 prior to this scene which is insane!
33: The aria proper stars here ***. She poignantly speaks to a portrait of Arturo.
35: A chorus of maidens arrives telling her that Arturo has just arrived and demands that she marry him that day. She finally gets happy and we are delighted for her ***.
Scene 4: Courtyard leading to the Church.
39: A jovial and almost explosive interlude leads to a chorus of bridal guests to the same tune ***.
46: Arturo sees Valdeburgo who tells him that Alaide has already concealed herself in the church over more of the explosive bridal music. Isoletta greets Arturo but he is as cold to her as ever. She sees through him almost immediately and decides to call off the wedding because he appears to be in such an anxious state ***. But Alaide comes on (turning the beautiful trio into a glorious quartet) and tells Isoletta that she is here to give her courage and takes the bride and groom into the church arm in arm.
52: Worried music follows as they all go inside for the ceremony and Agnes comes out having given up all hope (but not, she notes, love). Alone, she utters a lament but also asks heaven to forgive her for it ***.
56: Music is heard coming from the church as the choir sings blessings for the couple and Agnes expresses her anguish ***.
57: There is suddenly silence, Arturo comes out of the church and attempts to abduct Agnes when the Prior comes out of the church and reveals that Alaide is Agnes, the Queen of France and her rival, Isemberga, is dead and so she must go immediately to Paris. Rendered totally insane but this news Arturo immediately commits suicide by impaling himself on his own sword leaving Agnes totally in despair ***.
59: In the last three minutes Agnes declares that all she wants now is for heaven to kill her, she wants only death and says so in the most musically glorious way possible ***.
This is in my opinion the greatest opera Bellini ever wrote, and yes I am including Norma and I Puritani in that even if it does sound like total operatic heresy although Norma does come as a close second but I personally find Straniera more endearing. The score is filled with melody after melody and moves with grace from mood to mood with a perfection unheard of in operas that are not in the exclusive category of near perfect operas, and what is more shocking is that this is probably the least well known of the operas in that select group. There are a couple of mishaps in the pacing of the plot such as the long second act recitativo court scene (7 minutes) which only gets lifted by the arrival of the alive Valdeburgo and I really must concede that the last three scenes of act one could be combined into a single tableau (why does Arturo have to leave Alaide’s cabin when just seven minutes later he is spying, on Alaide and Valdeburgo, at the very same cabin, or at least why does this require different scenery? Seriously there are eight scenes and four of them are basically generic forest scenes with Alaide’s cabin three of which follow one after another?). Other than that this opera falls into the tiny category (along with Verdi’s Otello and a few others) of musically (although not always dramatically) almost perfect operas. Heck, I found myself giving single star ratings even to some of the recitatives they were that good! The main characters are an intriguing mix: Isoletta is possibly the finest cameo mezzo-soprano role in all of opera and far from being annoyed by the fact that this important character is hardly present for most of the opera this fact actually psychologically primes the audience to immediately recognize at the start of act 2 scene 3 just how isolated she is not just from the man she is engaged to but from us as well and how unjustifiably (and dare I say it, insanely) cruel her alienation is. Agnes/Alaide is probably one of the most brilliant coloratura soprano parts in terms of character psychology and the level of mental torment she must go through while at the same time being one of the most difficult in terms of stamina and yet one of the easiest in terms of vocal range extremity and ornamentation. The lack of any arias for Arturo in the score heightens the suspicion that he is already mentally borderline when we meet him. He is basically incapable of the emotions and introspection needed for an aria because he is mentally ill and his suicide causes a reaction of horror and revulsion upon recognizing how bizarrely inevitable it actually is. Valdeburgo has some of the best music in the opera written for the male voice and is probably the most likeable of the characters while not being dramatically pitiful like the others. I rather wish there was more to the threat of being watched that the Prior inflicts on Osburgo. Overall if you can convince yourself of Arturo’s mental insanity the opera’s crazy storyline actually comes together because the other characters are so three dimension and believable in the intensity of their sufferings and if Arturo is acknowledged as a mental case, so is he. An A.