|Steven LaBrie and Christine Lyons in Bellini's La Straniera|
(photo by Steven Pisano)
Last night at Rose Hall we enjoyed a rare performance of an early Bellini opera presented by Will Crutchfield's Bel Canto ensemble Teatro Nuovo; contrary to its nomenclature, the ensemble aims to bring back the performance style of the early 19th c. This involves the use of period instruments, improvisatory vocalism, and the shifting of responsibility from a conductor to singers and musicians. We were not the only member of the audience to find this approach novel and thrilling; the applause at the end was thunderous and well deserved.
The opera premiered at La Scala in 1829; Bellini lavished this work with endless melodic invention--not the tunes of Rossini tumbling out one on top of the other, but long lyric lines that stretched and reached, rising and falling, replete with scale passages rather than vocal acrobatics.
Librettist Felice Romani based his libretto on an historical novel L'Étrangère written in 1825 by Charles-Victor Prévost d'Arlincourt which was also dramatized into a play, contributing somewhat to the libretto. The story is based on 12th c. history involving King Philip II of France whose first marriage was annulled and then later reinstated, both events by means of some papal finagling.
A cursory knowledge of this history went a long way toward making sense of the odd plot which we will try to summarize briefly. A woman has been hidden away somewhere with her brother to watch over her. (She is actually the discarded second wife of King Philip who has been obliged to return to wife number one.) She is veiled and mysterious; the locals consider her to be a witch.
Meanwhile, Count Arturo, about to be married to Isoletta, daughter of the Count of Montolino, is obsessively in love with her, although this sad and lonely Alaide (formerly Queen Agnes) rejects him and feels as if her life is accursed. Ultimately Isoletta realizes that Arturo will never love her, and in a move worthy of a 21st c. woman, rejects him at the altar.
Before the end, there is a duel, a suspected murder, a trial, and accusations of betrayal, all tropes of Romantic literature. 19th c. audiences lapped up this stuff but last night we heard quite a few titters in the audience at some of the twists and turns of the improbable plot.
We ourself did not laugh. We are accustomed to silly plots and can enjoy the music for its merit. At the harpsichord (here called the cembalo) was Mr. Crutchfield himself, focusing on the singers; Associate Artistic Director and Concertmaster Jakob Lehmann focused on the musicians. It was astonishing to observe the absence of a conductor with a baton on a podium !
We loved the sound of the early instruments, particularly that of the wooden flute. This is the sound we would love to hear in duet with Lucia in her mad scene, if a glass harmonica were not available. We noticed a very different layout of the orchestra with musicians facing one another, presumably for collaborative advantage. The brass instruments were valveless. The harp was briefly onstage and thrilled us with celestial arpeggi.
The Teatro Nuovo chorus was superb and opened the work with a gentle rocking barcarolle, a setting of some perfectly poetic text. Soon we would meet the anxious bride Isoletta, sung by soprano Alina Tamborini whose promotion from Apprentice Artist was well deserved. She has a beautiful presence onstage and a voice to match, with a lovely resonance and beautiful Bellini phrasing. Sadly, we wouldn't hear much more of her until the end of the opera.
In the starring role we had a Teatro Nuovo regular--soprano Christine Lyons whose passion brought Alaide to life. Her innate musicality brought out the beauty of Bellini's vocal lines in the lyrical passages. The vocal range called for was quite wide but Ms. Lyons was undaunted. There was the requisite brilliance in the upper register and substantial power at the bottom.
In the role of the tortured Arturo we had the sweet voiced tenor Derrek Stark--another Teatro Nuovo regular. He sang the challenging role with open throat and convincing passion. We remember Mr. Stark from his two years as an Apprentice Artist at Santa Fe Opera and more recently as a young artist with Palm Beach Opera. It is exciting to witness his growth as an artist.
As Alaide's brother Valdeburgo, baritone Steven LaBrie gave one of his superbly intense performances. His instrument is muscular yet flexible and his acting flawless. He is one of those artists whom we recognized as a rising star upon first hearing. Maestro Eve Queler brought Mr. LaBrie to our attention 7 years ago at a recital in which he sang Silvio's duet from Pagliacci, Figaro's "Largo al Factotum", "Ya vas lyublyu" from Tchaikovsky's Queen of Spades, and "Vision fugitive" from Massenet's Herodiade. Hearing a baritone singing in bel canto and realismo styles, and in Italian, French, and Russian, convinced us he was on the path to stardom.
Now here's the coincidence. As rarely performed as this opera is, it was Maestro Queler who brought it to New York in 1993. Mr. LaBrie probably hadn't even started to sing then.
Tenor Isaac Fishman did well as the dissembling Osburgo and bass Vincent Grana lent authority to the role of Il Priore, who judged Alaide and recognized her as the French queen. Bass-baritone Dorian McCall had the role of Isoletta's father. All three men also sang in the excellent chorus.
The production was semi-staged. Fortunately everyone knew their roles and there were no music stands onstage. Singers were free to act; there were no sets or costumes; it was all about the music.
We left satisfied on every level and are looking forward to tonight's opera--Rossini's comedy La Gazza Ladra.
(c) meche kroop