Sunday, 17 February 2013

Stranger in the night

Musikverein, 8/2/2013 

Bellini: La straniera 

Alaide | Edita Gruberova
Arturo | José Bros 
Valdeburgo | Paolo Gavanelli
Isoletta | Sonia Ganassi 
Osburgo | Randall Bills
Il Priore degli Spedalieri | Sung Heon Ha
Il signore di Montolino | Leonard Bernad 

Conductor | Pietro Rizzo 
Münchener Opernorchester
Philharmonia Chor Wien

Another month, another bel canto gala with Edita Gruberova. The Viennese could get used to this. While this Straniera didn’t quite crackle with the same electricity as January’s Anna Bolena, it delved further into the melodrama the two pieces have in common and sounded a good deal less titillating than it had any right to be.

Much of this comes down to the chemistry Gruberova has with José Bros, which doggedly maintained intensity and sincerity no matter how overwrought the music or wildly fanciful the human passion their characters find themselves so helplessly caught in. The opera’s historical back-story concerns the figure of Agnes of Merania, a French consort exiled due to papal indignation at her husband’s bigamy, and living in seclusion by a lake where she is stumbled upon by Arturo, who is inconveniently engaged to marry Isoletta, daughter of a local nobleman. Isoletta is a tiny part and most of the opera is devoted to the star-crossed romance between Arturo and Agnes, known incognito as Alaide. Twists along the way include Alaide getting implicated in a murder which never takes place (of her brother Valdeburgo, sent as a watchful eye by his brother-in-law), Arturo jilting Isoletta at the altar, and the non-historical death of Alaide’s courtly rival, which forces her to return to Paris and Arturo to commit suicide. Relatively speaking, the plot isn’t so ornate and the Arturo/Alaide arc looms so inauspiciously over the piece that there’s little opportunity to inspect what attraction pulls these two together. This ambiguity, the medieval setting detached from finer historical points, and the supernatural nature of Alaide’s introduction – her disembodied voice warbles in otherworldly fashion from offstage – laces the action with a touch of quasi-Arthurian legend, though as in any self-respecting bel canto farrago, vocal expression is mainly associated with grandiose passion and suffering.

The musical style is however livelier than Bellini’s subsequent works and the epic Arturo/Alaide scenes and occasional ensembles with Valdeburgo are capped with flashy displays of vocal brilliance and stirring climaxes. Gruberova’s tuning sharpened a fair bit at a couple of points but as in Anna Bolena her navigation of the work’s immense technical challenges was startlingly impressive. What was less noticeable in Anna Bolena was that this seems to derive from an experimental approach to what works for her in a given situation, in turn applied consistently, almost methodically, to other ‘like events’ in the piece. Most of the time she manages to conceal this and sound convincingly spontaneous but there are moments where musical priorities take a back seat. Still, to pull out this kind of performance at this stage in her career remains remarkable and what is a mad scene in all but name at the end of Act I was done with as much haunting melancholy as anything I’ve heard her sing.

José Bros had another excellent night and though as technically careful as Gruberova, sang with a bracing sense of abandon keenly attuned to musical pacing and showed much refinement in his phrasing. For Arturo this opera is one long and unforgiving marathon, but his voice continued ringing like a trumpet no matter how arduous the vocal demands, repeatedly impressing with timbre and delivery ideal for this repertoire. Paolo Gavanelli too sang with much sensitivity for a deep-toned voice of this size and colour, with good legato and some moving soft lyric singing, and also pulled out the evening’s most unlikely top notes (a respectable A flat, twice). Isoletta is a thankless part but Sonia Ganassi, bringing her usual focused intensity, managed to do something with it. The comprimario roles – Sung Heon Ha as the Prior, Leonard Bernad as Isoletta’s father, and Randall Bills as Arturo’s confidant Osburgo – were all well-cast and Lee in particular is a bass worth watching out for.

Pietro Rizzi had handled Anna Bolena consummately but the playing in this performance, if by no means disappointing, only ignited in the ensembles, and as my companion wisely noted, in Bellini you really want to hear the violas more. The Philharmonia Chor Wien were fine but could have used a little more operatic drive.

This performance is repeated tomorrow and streamed live at 19:30 CET over at sonostream.tv.

Image credit: Julia Wesely

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