An Improbable Beauty: Bellini's 'La Straniera'

WOO-1512-250sameOK, to start with we'll admit that this week's featured opera likely deserves a sort of disclaimer. Something along the lines of: WARNING: The following dramatic presentation portrays events that strain the process of rational thought, and therefore may not be suitable for all audiences.

            That's because the story of the opera, Bellini's La Straniera, is so jam packed with convenient but preposterous plot twists that it seems impossible to take seriously. There are dead men coming back to life. There's a mysterious, unrecognizable character who is actually a world-famous celebrity. There's even a pair of potential lovers, from very different backgrounds, who turn out to be brother and sister without even realizing it. Who would believe any of it?

            Then again, you might be thinking, why should that surprise anyone? Doesn't opera routinely rely on a sort of storytelling in which "straining the process of rational thought" is pretty much par for the course? Aren't unbelievable stories exactly the sort of thing that makes opera an acquired taste, and keeps people from lining up for opera tickets the way they do at the local movie theater?

            Maybe. But if you think about it, there's plenty of wildly successful "popular" entertainment that scarcely makes any more sense than even the most outlandish opera. To find an example we need look no further than a story from "a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away."

            That's right, Star Wars. At six movies, and still counting, it's one of the most enduring and acclaimed franchises in the history of cinema. Yet, only two movies into the whole thing we find out that the story's main rivals -- Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, representing blameless good versus pernicious evil -- are actually father and son. Unbelievable! But that stunning revelation does provide plenty of future avenues for the story to travel, not to mention clearing up a few bothersome plot points.

            Then there's the Luke and Leia thing. They've been fighting side by side, all over the galaxy, without ever realizing that they're actually brother and sister. Twins, it turns out! But again, while that may seem implausible, it does facilitate the story's development. And importantly, like the Luke/Darth revelation, it makes for some supremely dramatic moments.

            So opera, it would seem, is hardly the only place to find unbelievable story lines in the service of pure entertainment.   We'll ask you to keep that in mind -- and maybe suspend a bit of that disbelief -- while you're enjoying Bellini's La Straniera. The story may be hard to take seriously, but the music it inspired is a different story altogether -- and it makes for some of the most dramatic moments in all of Bellini's operas.

            On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents La Straniera from the Theater an der Wien in Vienna, Soprano Marlis Petersen sings the challenging title role, in a production led by conductor Paolo Arrivabeni.