ABOUT LA STRANIERA (THE STRANGER)
Libretto: Felice Romani, based on the historical novel L'Étrangère by Charles-Victor Prévot
Premiere: 14 February 1829, Teatro alla Scala, Milan
The second Bellini opera to reach America (New York, 1834, after Il Pirata in 1832)
Verdi praised its “long long long melodies” and Wagner its “true passion and feeling.”
Bellini wanted one tenor, got another, rewrote later for the first one, and then told everyone the previous version was better.
The late Philip Gossett called La Straniera Bellini’s “most radical opera.” Written in 1829 to follow up Il Pirata, whose La Scala debut had made the young Sicilian the most sought-after composer in Italy, it is one of the most gorgeously melodic scores in all of opera, and at the same time one of the most uncompromisingly focused on psychological drama.
The plot is intentionally obscure. Here is Wikipedia’s account of the background. Don’t try to follow it - nobody can - but just read it through and think what it must have been like for a young noblewoman in the Dark Ages, a pawn in the strife and shifting alliances of duchies, counties, electorates, minor kingdoms, and Great Powers. This is what we learn:
“King Philip Augustus (Philip II of France) married the Danish princess Ingeborg in 1193. For unknown reasons, he separated from her the day after the wedding and sought an annulment from Pope Celestine III. Ingeborg, however, insisted that the marriage had been consummated, and that she was his wife and the rightful Queen of France. Philip ultimately obtained an annulment through an assembly of French bishops. He then sought to marry Marguerite, daughter of William I, Count of Geneva, but she was kidnapped on the way to Paris by Thomas I of Savoy, who married her instead. Ultimately, in 1196 Philip married Agnes of Merania, the daughter of Bertold IV, Margrave of Istria and Duke of Merania. Denmark continued to complain about Philip's treatment of Ingeborg and in 1200 Pope Innocent III required Philip to take her back, rendering him essentially a bigamist and subject to excommunication. Agnes died in 1201, however, ending the threat of excommunication.”
If you’re not battered into stupefaction yet, one question that might occur is: “how did Agnes feel about it?”
Romani and Bellini were interested in that.
They contrive a story of Agnes in exile on the shore of Lake Montolino in Brittany, hidden there by Philip to solve his double-marriage problem. She has assumed a false name, Alaide, but even that is more or less secret, and she is known to the locals simply as “la straniera,” the stranger or foreigner. They fear she is a witch. Her brother Leopold has been sent to watch over her, also under an assumed name, and with a fake mission supposedly unconnected to the mysterious lady. The lady is meanwhile loved by...what else, another nobleman trying to escape his own marriage. This is Arturo, Count of Ravenstel, who is betrothed to Isoletta, daughter of the Duke of Montolino.
In the telling it seems ludicrous. Nobody knows quite what is going on or who everybody else really is. But this opens exactly the path the authors wanted to walk: shrouded in Gothic mist, unmoored from facts and identities, the characters play out primal emotion. Concealment, fear, jealousy, suspicion, ambivalence, betrayal, and their catastrophic consequences - La Straniera is the rawest version of Romanticism, and it is just what audiences were rushing to embrace. The opera, again according to Gossett, “did the impossible, surpassing even the success of Il Pirata.” It was quickly repeated all over Italy and the world.
It was La Straniera that moved the Gazzetta Privilegiata di Milano to proclaim Bellini “a new Orpheus,” and that moved Verdi to his famous description of “long long long melodies such as no-one before him had produced.” The opera shows this melodic gift is at its most hypnotic and moving, and Bellini’s focus on human beings driven to extremes - he wanted people to “weep, shudder, and die singing” - at its most intense.
Bellini intended the opera for the same team of singers who had carried Il Pirata to triumph in the same theater, but the impresario Domenico Barbaja, who controlled both La Scala and the Teatro San Carlo in Naples, felt he needed to give the tenor Giambattista Rubini to the Southern theater for the Carnival season. Bellini wrote instead for Domenico Reina, a tenor with a much lower voice and a much higher reputation for his acting skill. A year later the composer had the chance to rewrite the part for Rubini, but found himself surprised: “everybody says Rubini is cold and they want Reina back,” because “Rubini makes everything languid” in a part that should be “full of spirit and fire.” Maybe Barbaja had the right idea.