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BELLINI: La Straniera

spacer Gruberova, Polverelli; Bros, Grassi, Stiefermann, Allen; Orpheus VokalensembleSWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg, Rizzo. 2012. No texts or translations. Nightingale NC 0715603 (2)

StranieraCD

Although the work has been championed by Montserrat Caballé, Renata Scotto and, more recently, Edita Gruberova, Bellini’s Straniera remains on the fringes of the standard repertoire. Written in 1829, it is the composer’s fourth opera, after Adelson e Salvini, Bianca e Fernando and Il Pirata, and it shows Bellini’s early mastery of the long, lyrical cantilena, with embellishment used for expressive purposes (rather than mere display, as in much of Rossini’s writing), and with an increasing control of dramatic interruptions of the conventional musical forms. Confrontational duets turn into trios (a particularly striking one in Act I boasts delicious modulations) and a quartet of confusion, with one character hidden from the others. Both acts end with important mad scenes for the soprano.

After a medieval French king has his marriage annulled, he takes a new wife, but when the Pope insists that the first marriage is valid, the second wife is shuttled off to a remote location and becomes the local “Foreign Woman.” These are the fact-based elements of Felice Romani’s libretto. For suspense, death, misunderstanding and the essential love story, additional characters — derived from Prévôt’s 1825 source novel, L’Étrangère — include a tenor who is engaged to the mezzo but falls in love with the soprano “Straniera” and mistakes her baritone brother for a love rival, leaving him for dead at the bottom of a lake after their duel. The king and his first wife appear only in a last-minute announcement of the wife’s death, requiring the Straniera to hie back to court and resume the Queenship. 

Already in the fifth decade of her professional career when this 2012 recording was made, Edita Gruberova remains a marvel of technical accomplishment, and she makes the most of any weaknesses, especially eerie white tones and tendency to mew, to characterize the outcast, mysterious, wronged and tormented Alaide (the historical Agnes of Merania) with her customary laser focus and a large range of dynamics. Many will object to the occasionally compromised tuning and an often mannered delivery, but the soprano leaps gamely up to her trademark high Ds and D-flats, landing most of them skillfully, and at the age of sixty-five she could still spin out a lyrical line alluringly.

In contrast, as the bride-to-be Isoletta, Laura Polverelli’s obtrusive vibrato ages her sound considerably, in spite of a lovely timbre and easy lyricism. Describing the appearance of La Straniera with mystery and dread, Polverelli uses dynamic shadings to great effect, and her Act II aria, “Ah! se non m’ami più,” sounds appropriately ornate and dreamy, while sweet tone and handy embellishments make much of the gentle cabaletta, “Al mio sguardo.”

Tenor José Bros brings ardent vocalism, gleaming tone and dramatic variety to the role of Arturo, from his honeyed opening recitative, as he falls in love with Alaide’s portrait, through the jaunty “Serba i tuoi secreti,” when Alaide dismisses his advances without explanation. In confrontation with his suspected rival, Bros rides over the chorus and orchestra heroically, registering anger without barking, and his declamation in the many recitatives is always sharply defined. As Alaide’s brother Valdeburgo, baritone Luca Grassi boasts a handsome, compact voice, and his beautiful top notes and lyrical, resonant sound make the most of his fairly conventional Act II aria, “Meco tu vieni.”

Pietro Rizzo leads the Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra in a well-paced, carefully groomed reading. spacer 

JUDITH MALAFRONTE

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