Sunday, June 7, 2015

La Straniera: Trills but no Thrills

Twelve months ago, when I saw Bellini’s La Straniera billed on the new season’s programme at the Berlin Staatsoper, I swore to be there. The chance to see an unfamiliar Bellini opera, one that had been a singular success in its time, but has now largely faded from the repertoire, was not to be missed. I go to the opera to see operas, not productions or stars, so I didn’t discover till quite late that what I was going to see was not La Straniera, but EDITA GRUBEROVA in La Straniera. A concert performance. Well, that was fine, too. I saw the lady do a very accomplished concert Lucrezia Borgia a couple of seasons back.

So tonight, in thirty-plus degrees, I struggled my way to the Schiller-Theater, through the boiling crowds of football fans heading for the European Cup final at Olympia. Underground not working and not a taxi to be had. But I made it, and sank sweatily into my seat in good time. Now for it.

I have to say that the evening, on the whole, was a disappointment. Interesting, but a disappointment. The work is another one of those pieces with a libretto which is based wholly on a suffering tenor who is meant to marry (a) but wants to marry (b), who is already married and is, anyway, a Queen. And they just go on and on about it. An umpteenth tiresomely dull and talky French melodrama made, and operatically remade, for a different age. Bellini has decorated this drawn-out bit of heart-rending with some very delightful music for soprano, tenor, baritone, second soprano (the same line-up he would soon use more successfully in La Sonnambula), but today it really does come over as, well, so very Bellini. I found the ensemble music, especially the trio in the first act and the quartet in the second, more enjoyable than the solos…

They were certainly better performed. The singers’ peculiarities were less evident in ensemble. We had a woofy baritone with a voice struggling to get off his palate, we had a tenor with a voice like toothpaste being squeezed from a tube, and we had an absolute festival of flat singing. The tenor got better in the second half, but my abiding memory of the night will be his scarlet face and bulging eyes as he reached his top note. The second lady did a competent job with her aria and trio, but I was comfortable only with the very tall comprimario basso, who just relaxed and sang his notes.

And then there was the star. Well, either Madame G was having an off night, or there has been a great falling away since Lucrezia Borgia. The appealing way she crafted and managed the music of the former piece here became mere mannerism. Too much of her singing was floated, falsetto, too often inaccurate in pitch or division: it was a shock. It seemed that the machine was failing to respond to the driver’s commands. And in a vast florid role such as the ‘straniera’ that is disaster. At the end of the long first act, the applause of the devoted was mixed with booing. I was silent. If you come to see a 69 year-old soprano, who looks distractingly like Julia McKenzie in TV’s Miss Marple, you cannot expect a 20 year-old performance. You have to make allowances. Only, in Lucrezia Borgia you didn’t have to make allowances.

There were some empty seats for the second act. It went better but … well, thank you all concerned for the opportunity to hear La Straniera … it has some lovely bits, which I feel I would like even more on a second hearing. But, truthfully, the libretto kills it as a stage prospect. Best just to retire it. And the star? I grew up in New Zealand, where we have been used to seeing the greats at the tail end of their careers … but … tonight hurt.

Back across Berlin through the post-match fans. Barcelona and Turin lads and lasses delightfully arm-in-arm together. You couldn’t tell who had won. But I felt, tonight, in my world, someone had lost ….

Post scriptum (weeks later). Whilst researching something else, a review of the original 1832 British premiere of La Straniera fell under my eye. It was brief. 'Last Saturday La Straniera by Bellini was brought out. The music is vulgar, commonplace and ineffective. Signora G Tamburini performed the part of Isoletta in which there is so little to do that we shall defer passing our judgement on this lady ... Certainly, if La Straniera has any success in this country, it will be wholly due to Signora Tosi and Signori Tamburini and Donzelli.' Ouch.

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