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Annick Massis [Photo by Gianni Ugolini]
17 May 2016

Valiant but tentative: La straniera at the Concertgebouw

This concert version of La straniera felt like a compulsory musicology field trip, but it had enough vocal flashes to lobby for more frequent performances of this midway Bellini.

Valiant but tentative: La straniera at the Concertgebouw

A review by Jenny Camilleri

Above: Annick Massis [Photo by Gianni Ugolini]


La straniera ’s rarity on the opera stage is often blamed on Felice Romani’s libretto, perhaps a tad unfairly. Neither plot nor subject matter is more unlikely than your average early nineteenth century Italian opera. Like Rossini’s La donna del lago and Donizetti’s La favorite, La straniera features an alluring leading lady with royal affiliations in idyllic and/or gothic surroundings. The plot line is stop-and-go because of the lengthy scenes. Bellini intersperses his melodious arias and scampering cabalettas with half-sung recitatives. This canto declamato, innovative at the 1829 première, requires fine singing actors to set it alight. The many tropes in the plot are a weakness: bucolic surroundings, persecution of outsiders, love versus duty, a love triangle (or two), and more. However, Bellini’s spicy brass and percussion and gracefully coiling melodies, effortlessly evoking everything from crystal lakes to a vigilante mob, almost justify this thematic patchwork.

The plot is tenuously historical. Around the end of the twelfth century, Philip II of France became a bigamist when the Pope refused to recognize the annulment of his first marriage. After sending Ingeborg of Denmark away after their wedding night, Philip married Agnes of Merania. Brandishing excommunication and worse, the Pope forced him to take Ingeborg back. The real Agnes died of a broken heart, ending Philip’s papal problems, but at the end of the opera it is Ingeborg who dies, and Agnese, aka Alaide, the “foreigner” of the title, is revealed as the rightful queen. Because Alaide lives alone in a hut, the local peasants naturally accuse her of witchcraft. Equally naturally, a young nobleman, Arturo, becomes smitten with her. Her brother has moved close by, to watch over her, disguised as Baron Valdeburgo, and when he advises Arturo to forget her, the latter takes him for a rival and wounds him in a duel. Alaide is tried for Valdeburgo’s murder before the Prior of the Knights Hospitallers. To complicate matters, Arturo is engaged to Isoletta, the daughter of the local lord. Although she is in love with him, Alaide urges Arturo to go through with the wedding. He almost does, but abandons Isoletta at the altar, only to fall on his sword when he learns Alaide’s true identity. The opera ends in her anguished final aria, aflutter with trills and hopefully ending in a cracking high D-flat.

Soprano Annick Massis held on to that glorious final note for no less than eight seconds. Indeed, her top notes were piercing and pleasingly metallic. After a quavering opening cadenza, her technique settled, revealing an impressive virtuosic toolbox. Despite less than steadfast pitch, her phrasing was sensitive and stylish. Unfortunately, her voice was too small and soft-grained for the role, and her diction not sharp enough to compensate for the lack of dramatic scale. She deftly negotiated chromatic runs, but they were rendered uneven by timbral differences in the registers — her voice loses quality the lower it goes. Ms Massis was frequently inaudible in the big ensembles. In fact, none of the singers except Alisa Kolosova had the volume to match conductor Giancarlo Andretta’s decibels. Although her first appearance had some pitch issues, with her rich, shiny mezzo and emotional intensity Ms Kolosova was immediately a flesh-and-blood Isoletta. Her heartfelt rejected bride aria was one of the few moments when this mostly earthbound performance took flight.

With most of the singers glued to the score most of the time, acting, vocal and otherwise, was inhibited. Tenor Leonardo Capalbo tried his best, and mostly succeeded, in transmitting Arturo’s pain. He was sweetly ardent in the love duet and thereafter increasingly distraught, his clear enunciation injecting drama into the fast strettas. He has a very attractive, light lyric voice with a tendency to press at forte and to end beautifully emitted phrases with unsupported notes. His was a rather exasperating performance — copious natural talent and a lovely mezza-voce, but also some decidedly unlovely pushing. Like Mr Capalbo, baritone Luca Grassi had excellent diction, but his grayscale performance suffered from unreliable intonation and was relentlessly dour. That is, until his animated Act II aria, “Meco tu vieni, o misera” when Valdeburgo, presumed dead, appears at the trial to acquit his sister. Supporting roles were well-sung. Bass Massimiliano Catellani was a dignified Montolino, Isoletta’s father. Refreshingly unhitched from his score, bass-baritone Roberto Lorenzi sang a commanding Prior with a voice of melted chocolate. It is a pity that Osburgo, Arturo’s confidant, sings mostly with the chorus. In his few solo lines, Luis Gomes displayed a pliant, brightly coloured tenor. Hopefully, Amsterdam will get to hear him in a bigger role.

Mr Andretta led the Royal Flemish Philharmonic at a forward tilt, with rhythmic tightness, but the overall impression was one of underprepared commitment. Uncertain entrances and tempo tugs-of-war indicated insufficient rehearsal time. It took a while for the men of the Netherlands Radio Choir to line up properly and the chorus as a whole lacked finish. Similarly, the orchestra showed little interpretative flair, despite many fine instrumental intros, including fragrant flute and oboe solos. Mr Andretta led thrilling crescendos, but elsewhere gloopy strings and matt dynamics robbed the score of its airiness. In spite of these reservations, the NTR ZaterdagMatinee deserves high praise for programming this kind of repertoire. The loudly enthusiastic Concertgebouw audience would certainly welcome more of it.

Jenny Camilleri

Cast and production information:

Alaide: Annick Massis; Isoletta: Alisa Kolosova; Arturo: Leonardo Capalbo; Baron Valdeburgo: Luca Grassi; the Duke of Montolino: Massimiliano Catalani; the Prior of the Knights Hospitallers: Roberto Lorenzi; Osburgo: Luis Gomez. Netherlands Radio Choir, Royal Flemish Philharmonic. Conductor: Giancarlo Andretta. Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, Saturday, 14th May 2016.

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