La Straniera, Opera by V. Bellini
Vincenzo Bellini, a master of Italian opera from the early 19th century, was known for his extended melody lines. They were both his calling card and a major device to amplify the drama and impact of the onstage action. Bellini’s classic melodramatic opera La Straniera, playing at the Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino in Florence, is a prime example of this musical method and will easily pull you into its atmospheric plot!
Bellini and librettist Felice Romani found inspiration in a series of unfortunate royal marriages in the distant twelfth century, whereby King Philip II of France married and immediately separated from Danish Princess Ingeborg, then wooed Marguerite of Geneva unsuccessfully, and ended up marrying the noble lady Agnes of Meran, who earned herself the nickname ‘the Stranger’ (or ‘la straniera’ in Italian). The Pope intervened, denouncing Philip’s separation from Ingeborg and accusing the king of bigamy. Philip’s escapades had already been documented in Charles-Victor Prévot’s two-part novel L’Étrangère, which served as a departure point for Bellini’s work.
Taking considerable liberties with both historical and literary accounts of the events, Bellini and Romani reimagined the King sending off his possibly unlawful second wife, Agnes, away to a lake cottage where she assumes the name Alaide and hides her face behind a veil. The local Count Arturo is fascinated with this mysterious foreigner, and his obsession with her threatens his engagement to Isoletta. A classic melodrama unfolds. The premiere at Teatro alla Scala on 14 February 1829 was a riot!
Bellini’s musical talent and characteristic style fit the plot of La Straniera perfectly. He exercises complete mastery of orchestration’s dramaturgic powers and accompanies Agnes/Alaide’s mysterious introduction with fittingly winding and foreboding melodies. Bellini also emphasises her alienation through his compositional choices: her voice often stands out during ensemble numbers, and odd instruments like harp or flute support her arias in lieu of more traditional accompaniment.
Although many would scoff at the melodramatic and at times plainly ridiculous plot, La Straniera remains a uniquely atmospheric and charming period piece, an opera with distinctive character and emotional charge. Bellini’s lush extensive melodies and his knack for careful musical character-building carry the plot forward at a rapid pace, and spectators at Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino in Florence will appreciate the unique feel of this old Italian opera.