For those who love to make fun of the absurdities of opera plots, Bellini's "La Straniera" ("The Stranger") is rich fodder indeed. "What? The man I just killed isn't your lover, but — your brother? Oh no, let me fling myself into the water after him! Now you'll be convicted of his death at this big trial — only to have him run in, proving that he isn't really dead!" The audience at Lisner Auditorium on Sunday night, where Washington Concert Opera presented this rarely performed work, was actually laughing out loud.
The beauty of opera in concert is that you don't have to worry about figuring out a staging that would make this plot halfway credible; you can just focus on the music. And delectable music it is. Bellini was one of the great pathbreakers of Italian opera, and had he not died at 33, he could well have left a legacy worthy of Verdi. As it is, several of the 11 operas he did write, including "Norma," are among the greatest of the operatic style known as bel canto — early 19th-century Italian opera — and have retained an enduring place in the repertoire. "La Straniera" is not among them, but starting from the beginning, when the orchestra caresses a duet between mezzo-soprano and baritone that remains limited to half-broken phrases from the singers while the instruments spin out long melodies, the score seduces the ear. And the conductor Antony Walker and his young cast did their best to show it off.
Unlike past Washington Concert Opera performances, this one didn't have any established stars, although all the leads are embarked on burgeoning international careers. Javier Arrey, the most homegrown of the talents (an alumnus of Washington National Opera's Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program and the Castleton Festival under Lorin Maazel), was also the strongest, singing with a mellifluous, robust baritone the part of La Straniera's brother Valdeburgo, the now-he's-dead-now-he-isn't character mentioned above. Jonas Hacker, another regular with WCO, was striking in the small bad-guy role of Osburgo, who is trying to push through the marriage of the tenor, Arturo, to his fiancee, Isoletta, despite the fact that Arturo seems intent on jilting Isoletta in favor of the mysterious Straniera, whose name happens to be Alaide, although she turns out really to be Agnes . . . but I digress. Actually, I don't digress at all, but I doubt the plot summary is going to make anything clearer to you.
The Australian tenor Gerard Schneider played Arturo like something out of a Marx Brothers movie, a 1930s-style matinee idol, all strong jaw and posture and ringing notes and melodramatic emotion — which would have worked better had his ardor not led him to such palpable disregard for singing the right pitches, particularly in the first half of the opera (including the fabulous trio "No, non ti son rivale").
Amanda Woodbury brought something of an Amy Winehouse vibe to the title role; I last heard her at the Metropolitan Opera as Gounod's Juliet, and she impressed me a little more here, singing over an announced indisposition with conviction and an attempt to flesh out the role without the full measure of larger-than-life personality to animate it. Corrie Stallings made the most of the hapless Isoletta, whom Arturo finally leaves at the altar a second time before coming out, stabbing himself, and dying at La Straniera's feet, leaving her to expire herself of lovesickness, even though the way has just been cleared for her to ascend the throne at the side of her husband, the king, whose first wife has just died . . .
I thoroughly enjoyed the ridiculous plot, which afforded considerable amusement, and I found the evening quite a lot of fun, complete with the robust contributions of the chorus, who had to spend part of Act II pretending to be huntsmen, and then running offstage to sing, effectively, in the wings — one of the few bits of actual staging in the evening, and one that worked.
The Washington Concert Opera will present another forgotten bel canto work, Donizetti's "Maria di Rohan," in February.