Two Rare Operas: “La straniera” and “Alcina”

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Amanda Woodbury in Des Moines Metro Opera's 2015 production of "Die Entführung aus dem Serail." Photo by Mike Rolands. Courtesy Amanda Woodbury.

In opera, as in most things, there is rare, and then there is rare.

While the opera repertoire is large in all of its modes, genres and styles, not every opera graduates to the status of a classic, seen dozens of times during the course of a single season. Some have their time in the spotlight, have a grand opening in an opera house from long ago, then disappear … only to reappear, then disappear again, to make way for a “Carmen” or a “Bohème.”

November is a month for the rare in Washington. These are rare times for rare works. Take, for instance, “La straniera,” a bel-canto rarity by Vincenzo Bellini that premiered in 1829 at La Scala in Milan. Bellini was a giant in his day, but “La straniera” did not have the staying power of some of his other works, such as “I puritani” and “Norma.”

Enter Washington Concert Opera, the long-standing producer of rarely performed and under-appreciated operas done concert-style, “where the music is everything,” as WCO Artistic Director Antony Walker says. The company will present “La straniera” on Sunday, Nov. 19, at 6 p.m. in George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium.

Something rare — it’s never actually happened — is also going on at the Kennedy Center, where Washington National Opera is presenting “Alcina,” a magical (sorceresses, enchantment, misguided love) baroque opera by 18th-century composer George Frideric Handel through Nov. 19 in the more intimate space of the Eisenhower Theater.

Although it’s a first-time production for WNO, it has its familiar aspects with the presence of director Anne Bogart and star soprano Angela Meade, the super-creative forces in WNO’s 2013 production (oddly enough) of Bellini’s “Norma.”

The two operas share some things, of course: complicated, astonishing, convoluting plots, gorgeous music, romance, tragedy — all the qualities that people who cannot live without opera live for (along with the things, especially the predictable improbabilities, that people who never admit to going to the opera sneer at).

The rare is the norm for WCO. According to Walker, “The mission of Washington Concert Opera is to provide a secure home for rarely performed operatic masterpieces, and to give established artists the opportunity to perform in debut roles as well as signature roles, and to introduce the exceptional talents of emerging talents.”

And here, too, is where neglected or rare works — like “La straniera” — rise out of the musical shadows.

Walker notes that, according to Operabase, there have been only 12 productions of “La straniera” in Europe since 1996, along with one concert performance in Toronto in
2001. Renata Scotto sang the lead role of Alaide, the stranger or foreign woman, in productions in Palermo and Venice in 1968 and 1970, respectively. The most recent staged performances in the United States were at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1989.

For Washington Concert Opera, Bellini has become a kind of specialty. “La straniera” is the company’s sixth Bellini opera, out of his 11 completed works. It’s also the first professional presentation of the work in Washington history.

That’s very rare indeed.

Based on events that actually happened in 12th-century Europe — when weddings, romances and engagements were matters fraught with danger, politics, deception and confusion — the opera centers around a scandalous divorce from a Danish princess by a powerful French king. Instead, he marries a mysterious foreigner whom he keeps hidden in a forest cottage. There’s forbidden love, hidden love and choices to be made. As they say, it’s complicated, only more so, in the bel-canto and opera way.

Soprano Amanda Woodbury stars as Alaide, making her WCO debut. Woodbury sang Juliette last season in the Metropolitan Opera production of “Roméo et Juliette.” Tenor Gerard Schneider is Arturo, mezzo-soprano Corrie Stallings is Isoletta and WCO veteran baritone Javier Arrey is Valdeburgo.

“Alcina” shares with “La straniera” that improbability of plot, setting, incidents and coincidences and the unflagging, centuries-old pull of Handel’s music.

As the promotions call like a siren: “Welcome to the island of illusions.” The sorceress Alcina (Meade) has the habit of luring handsome knights and heroes to her island, where, after she tires of them, she turns them into monsters or stones. One such knight is the warrior Ruggiero, who falls under her spell. This “trouser-role” is sung by mezzo-soprano Elisabeth DeShong, who recently appeared as Adalgisa in “Norma” at Lyric Opera of Chicago and as Suzuki in “Madama Butterfly” with the Royal Opera House and the Bavarian State Opera.

Chinese soprano Ying Fang, seen recently at Wolf Trap as Cleopatra in (hello, again) Handel’s “Giulio Cesare,” portrays Alcina’s sister Morgan. Handel specialist Jane Glover conducts in her WNO debut.

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