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In the end Arturo goes back to Isoletta and agrees to marry her, but is profoundly tormented during the marriage service and only goes on because La Straniera forces him to. At the very last minute word comes that the king's previous wife is dead so that La Straniera is now Queen. A shocked Arturo falls on his sword.

The only thing to do with such a farrago is to ignore it and concentrate on the situations that librettist Felice Romani achieves and on Bellini's musical response. Much of the opera is conveyed in dramatic ensembles. Apart from La Straniera's opening and closing numbers, plus Isoletta's final scene, no-one really gets a solo. The roles of Arturo and Valdeburgo are substantial, but neither has a fully blown aria. The result is fascinating, almost as if someone took a more substantial opera and filleted the arias out. Only Bellini's melodic gift means that all the ensembles are entrancing and moving.

In the title role, Patrizia Ciofi had La Straniera's neurotic demeanour down to a tee; this is a character who is bewailing her lack of luck in love from the very beginning. We never learn much about her relationship to the king, but it does not seem to bring her happiness. She can neither bring herself to commit to loving Arturo nor to fully give him up. We first hear her in an off-stage, wordless aria which is the most florid in the piece. Ciofi took some time to warm up and the florid nature of the aria did not show her at her best. But from then on she sang La Straniera's music beautifully, conveying emotion whilst preserving a fine sense of line and a delicate frailty. In fact the constant frailty of her vocalisation might not have been to everyone's taste and I could image that a more spinto type of voice (Caballé for instance) might make a different, but striking effect in the role. But Ciofi used her essentially lyric style of singing with care and musicality. At the end of the piece, La Straniera sings the final musical number with the chorus alone and here Bellini lets rip with one of his characteristic endless melodies.

Though La Straniera is neurotic and rather torn in love, Arturo is the character who is positively demented. Though he does not actually have a mad scene, it is important that this character comes over as obsessive and irrationally in love with La Straniera. Argentinian tenor Dario Schmunck sang the role with style and confidence; he has a lovely burnished well focussed voice and his every utterance was a joy to listen to. Though he emoted pretty well, he came over as just a little to straightforward and down to earth. But this was just a concert performance and with the help of a good director I'm sure he could put over the character's irrational side. Schmunck never gets a solo, instead we hear him in dialogue with everyone else. First a lovely duet with La Straniera and then a series of ensembles and duets, where Schmunck blended beautifully with his colleagues.

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Copyright © 10 November 2007 Robert Hugill, London UK


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