An Improbable Beauty: Bellini's 'La Straniera'

WARNING: The following narrative portrays events that strain the process of rational thought, and therefore may not be suitable for all audiences.

            La Straniera has two acts, set in Brittany at the beginning of the 1300s. As the action begins, the young woman Isoletta is about to marry Arturo -- and a gentle chorus anticipates the joyful celebration. But, this wedding won't be going off without a hitch -- not by a long shot.

            Arturo's friend Valdeburgo senses that the groom is having second thoughts, and Arturo admits it. He's falling for someone else -- a mysterious woman living down by the lake. No one knows her name, or where she came from, so everyone simply calls her La Straniera -- the Stranger. There are even rumors that she's a witch. Isoletta also senses that something is up with Arturo -- that he's not looking forward to their marriage. She confides this to Valdeburgo, who now knows for sure that the impending marriage is in trouble.

            Arturo knows the mysterious woman he's falling for as Alaide, and before long he leaves the wedding party and goes to the lake to visit her. The two seem very much in love. Yet Alaide is plainly unhappy. Arturo wants to help. But she tells him that it's no use. She can't deal with her guilt at having come between Arturo and Isoletta. She urges him to leave her, return to Isoletta, and get married. With that, the two sadly go their separate ways.

            On his way back to town, Arturo meets up with Valdeburgo, and the two men make their way to Alaide's house on the lake. When the three are together, it's obvious that Valdeburgo and Alaide already know each other, and Arturo is suspicious. He's even more alarmed when Valdeburgo seems to know more about Alaide than he admits.

            At that, Arturo assumes that Valdeburgo and Alaide have been lovers, and that Valdeburgo is thus his rival. Valdeburgo denies it in a moving trio, and Arturo at first seems convinced. But, the more he sees the two together, the angrier he becomes. Eventually, Arturo confronts Valdeburgo and the two men draw swords. Arturo gets the upper hand and stabs Valdeburgo, who stumbles, and falls into the lake, bleeding.

            Alaide is horrified, and finally admits the truth. Valdeburgo's real name is Leopoldo -- and he's not Alaide's lover. He's her brother. Now, Arturo's love for Alaide takes over. He's horrified at having stabbed her brother. So he jumps into the lake, trying to rescue Valdeburgo -- and disappears under the water.

            At this, Alaide thinks she's responsible for the deaths of both her lover and her brother, and guilt takes over once again. As she sings a brief mad scene, people from the town arrive to find two men gone in the lake, and Arturo's bloody sword at Alaide's feet. They accuse her of murder and drag her away.

            As Act Two begins, Alaide is brought before the local Prior for judgment. At first, things are looking bleak for her. Wearing a veil, she has little to say for herself, and still won't even reveal her name. The Prior does seem to recognize her voice, but he can't place it.

            Then, just as Alaide is about to be condemned, everyone is astonished when Arturo suddenly appears, alive and well. Arturo promptly confesses to stabbing Valdeburgo.   Not surprisingly, the crowd turns on Arturo, and the Prior is about to find him guilty of murder. But then, Valdeburgo appears -- also alive and well!  

            The Prior tells Alaide that, with nobody actually dead, she's free to go. Valdeburgo leads her away, saying they'll find a place where she can hide her tears and live out her life alone, without ever revealing her true identity.

            Arturo quietly follows them back to the lake, hoping to rejoin Alaide. But Valdeburgo won't even allow Arturo to see her. Instead, he reminds Arturo of his various misdeeds: He has broken Alaide's heart, betrayed his fiancée Isoletta, and nearly killed Valdeburgo himself. Now, Valdeburgo tells Arturo that Alaide has a message for him: If he fulfills his promise, and marries Isoletta, Alaide can live in peace.

In the final scene, everyone has gathered for the much-delayed wedding of Arturo and Isoletta. Even Alaide is there, watching in secret. But Arturo is miserable, and when he takes Isoletta's hand she knows immediately that he's no longer in love with her. She releases Arturo, and calls off the wedding.

Then, Alaide suddenly appears. Feeling guilty at having broken up Isoletta's engagement, she urges the couple to go through with the ceremony. But when Arturo sees Alaide, he's overwhelmed by love -- and says that if they can't be together, he'd prefer to die. Then, the opera springs its final, big surprise -- as if things weren't complicated enough already!

            The Prior enters the scene, sees Alaide, and finally recognizes her. She's Agnese, the former Queen of France, who went into hiding when it was discovered the king had married another woman first. But now, the Prior says, that other queen has died, and Alaide -- that is, Agnese -- is duty-bound to leave, and return to the throne. At that, Arturo has heard enough. He tells Alaide that she'll leave over his dead body, then promptly falls on his own sword and dies at her feet. Overcome by guilt -- again -- Alaide prays for her own demise and falls on Arturo's body, dying, as the opera ends.

            Whew.