OperaMetro (OM) caught up again with sopranos Christine Lyons (CL) and Alina Tamborini (AT), the two principal sopranos in Teatro Nuovo’s production of Vincenzo Bellini’s dark drama La straniera.* It’s a ‘wait please, sorry my dear friends, just one more question…’ sort of thing.
The ‘one more question’ was prompted by comments these artists offered about their preparation for La straniera. The operas mounted by Teatro Nuovo are semi-staged, which means that, in the absence of sets of a castle, a cabin in the forest, a lake, the Loch Ness Monster (rumored to be swimming in the lake), etc., the singers by their vocals, their inflections, their gestures and their interpersonal spacing must communicate the essentials of the plot. But more than just this: through their coaching at Teatro Nuovo, the singers are encouraged not only to dig deeply into their characters, but also, in their expression, take charge, within reason, of the flow of the dramatic moment without the iron hand of a conductor on the podium. Each moment potentially becomes a real-time creation, rather than a strictly scripted over-learned exercise. It opens opportunities for spontaneous dramatic insights to emerge in the heat of a performance.
Therefore OM asks these wonderful singers to discuss how each understands her character and the other, her dramatic counterpart.
OM: So you’ve had this conversation?
AT: Yes, Christine and I talked about this! We both agreed that, at least in our interpretation, neither Alaide (aka la straniera) nor Isoletta hate the other. In spite of what Isoletta says earlier in the opera, I don't think that she completely blames Alaide for her fiancé's wandering heart at all. For one thing, Isoletta's marriage to Arturo is arranged. I think that she wants him to love her and she wants to love him in return. During her aria in Act II, when she is looking at her locket, I feel that for a moment she believes maybe somewhere there is hope. But she also fears deep down that this is not possible: when she's with him, she can see the distance between them in his eyes and feel it in his hands. She fears that the strange woman, who seems to appear on the lake out of the mists, has captured his heart and soul.
CL: There is no bad blood between the two women in the libretto of Romani. We also know that in Charles Victor Prévost’s romance L’Etrangère, which is the source material for La straniera, Alaide and Isoletta eventually become close friends after Arturo’s death.
OM: Really? Interesting! And that information about their ultimate friendship could color one’s interpretation of the text of the final scene?
OM: But at the moment of the final scene the characters couldn’t know this eventuality.
CL: No, of course not, but the seeds of that path could be hinted at. It’d be a subtle touch.
AT: Up until that final scene, Isoletta vacillates between hopes for his return and fears that Alaide is compromising Arturo’s relationship with her. The two women finally meet at the wedding.
OM: How does this come about?
CL: Prior to the wedding, a deal is made between Arturo and Alaide’s brother Valdeburgo in which they agree that Arturo will go through with his wedding to Isoletta, so as ease Alaide’s distress. Arturo consents only on the condition that Alaide attends the wedding. At the ceremony, she is hidden as a veiled presence.
AT: Isoletta is cautiously ecstatic at the news of Arturo’s intention to return to her, but his behavior is ultimately not convincing.
OM: For instance?
AT: She observes that he has grown pale, he is distracted, he hesitates to enter the church. In fact, knowing Alaide, as agreed, is somewhere nearby and fearing his lack of self-control, Arturo says Ma son tuo... Ecco la mano! Stringila omai... ti affretta pria che tolta ti venga. He’s essentially saying "I'm yours, here is my hand. Clasp it before it is taken away from you." These are not really the words you want to hear from your husband to be!
OM: Certainly not!
AT: During the ensuing quartet, Isoletta, saddened, tells Arturo that he is free and he should leave. What makes this quartet so special is that Arturo, Alaide (still veiled), and Isoletta all sing the same text with our individual motivations; we are all singing with our own sorrows.
CL: At this point Alaide lifts her veil to reveal herself. She speaks up with a resounding “Stop!” to cease the discord between the betrothed pair. The most pointed exchange between the two women is here.
AT: Shocked, Isoletta asks, “Why have you come?”
OM: Probably a number of different ways to accent this question.
CL: Yes and also to accent the answer. Alaide replies, “To give you heart.” I interpret this as “To give you heart and courage knowing that you love this man and that this union is meant to be.” I think this unexpected and unplanned gesture of Alaide’s could be inspired by many things: perhaps a moment of overwhelming compassion towards Isoletta.
AT: Which goes to show that Alaide is no home wrecker, at least not by her own actions
OM: Which might be the seed toward their ultimate friendship, si?
AT: It might, sure.
CL: Sure. Perhaps Alaide is feeling a jolt to action in order to avoid the wrath of God should their wedding ceremony not go through. Perhaps she is feeling an insufferable fear for Arturo’s fate and for her own, should he not keep his vow to Isoletta. Though she has an ill wanted love for Arturo, she doesn’t wish to be responsible for their misery. Upon revealing to Isoletta that she is the elusive La Straniera, she takes Arturo and Isoletta by the hand and leads them to the altar.
OM: The stage directions say that she raises her hands to Heaven.
CL: It’s one of the most heartbreaking arias: she prays to the heavens, saying that if her tears have not formerly placated the wrath of God, then she hopes that this sacrifice of the heart by giving Arturo over will.
OM: But Arturo can’t part from her and leaves Isoletta at the alter. He is devastated when he learns that Alaide is really Agnese, now the lawful wife to King Philippe-Auguste.
CL: This presents me another interpretive option as an actor: perhaps her gesture was the ultimate offering to God. In the very moment before she says, “Stop!” she has decided that this sacrifice was the key to her salvation.
OM: How do you decide which way to interpret it?
CL: Audiences will have to come to the show to find out which way the atmosphere swings!
French soprano Henriette Méric Lalande created the role of Alaide in La straniera at La Scala in 1829. Her other creations included Bianca in Bellini’s earlier Bianca e Gernando, Imogene is Bellini’s Il pirata, Zaira in Bellini’s opera of the same name, and Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia.
Photos: Christine Lyons by Matt Medelsohn; Alina Tamborini by Tyler James with Tyler James Photography.
Bellini’s La straniera will to be performed, don’t miss it, on the evening of Saturday, July 13 at 7:30 p.m. at the Performing Arts Center at Purchase College, Purchase, NY, and the evening of Wednesday, July 17 at 7:30 p.m. at Jazz at Lincoln Center in Manhattan. Will Crutchfield, who is Artistic and General Director, is Maestro al cembalo; Jakob Lehmann is Co-Director and Concert Master.
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Happy 4th of July!