Friday, November 4, 2011

Guest Blogger EB on La Sonnambula (Royal Opera House, London, November 2nd 2011)

This was my first encounter with Bellini's gorgeous Alpine confection. A tale of innocent mountain folk wrongly accusing a virtuous maiden, the plot is the sort that gives opera as drama a bad name. Fortunately it is rescued by Bellini's consistently lovely music. One of the 19th Century's great melodists, his works are only worth tackling for a superb cast and conductor.

I suspect Covent Garden's main reason for reviving Marco Arturo Marelli's 2002 production - itself originating from Vienna in 2001 - was to showcase the Amina of Cuban-American soprano Eglise Gutiérrez. As theatre, it is rather a curious affair. I can certainly understand why a director would seek to reinterpret the piece. It is dramatically fragile, turning on the gullibility (stupidity?) of the villagers - who impose a curfew for fear of the 'phantom' stalking the village, later revealed to be none other than the sleepwalking heroine herself. Mary Zimmerman took the same approach with her 2009 Metropolitan Opera production, set in a contemporary rehearsal room. Unfortunately, going searching for hidden meaning when there may be none to find can backfire, as happened here (and at the Met): Marelli's approach rather sent up poor Amina and her misfortune, rather than illuminating hidden dramatic depths.

I understand that Bellini was inspired to write the piece after a spell in an Alpine sanatorium, and this is where Marelli's production is situated. The splendid setting is a handsome, spacious art deco foyer with a view to mountains beyond, invaded by the snow at the end of Act 1 and in great disarray by the second half. Elvino (Celso Albelo in his Covent Garden debut) begins playing the grand piano overlooked by a picture of his mother - echoes of Antonia in Hoffman, perhaps? - whilst well-to-do patients genteelly celebrate the forthcoming nuptials. The turn-of-the-century setting, with its Freudian undertones, would certainly fit with Amina as a patient receiving treatment for her nocturnal affliction, yet she turns out to be a member of waiting staff, seemingly subordinate to Elena Xanthoudakis' embittered Lisa, all of which rather upends the social hierarchy.

Elsewhere, Marelli flirts with abstraction, for example his use of the stage within a stage and especially at the end, where Amina doffs her nightwear in favour of a scarlet ball gown and sings 'Ah, non giunge' concert style before the house curtain. The result, rather than being smart and provocative, is a bit of a mess, though easy on the eye.

And extremely easy on the ear. Gutiérrez followed her concert Linda di Chamounix and her adorable Fairy in Cendrillon with an astonishing performance in a role which plays to her strengths. Hers is a light soprano which carries well, dusky of hue and gossamer like, uncommonly beautiful. It extends effortlessly in altissimo and she employs her great technical prowess to spin Bellini's hallmark legato lines which appear to go on forever. Visually a buxom dead ringer for Netrebko, she was an appealing heroine. Now may we hear her in I Puritani?

Albelo sounded nervous for most of Act 1, with some stiff phrasing and tuning problems, but later spun some more liquid tone. He produced some gleaming phrases at the top of the voice and is very musical. He is no Floréz though, and I'm afraid he's no actor either - his ineffectual chair- throwing at the climax of Act 1 bordered on the laughable. The dramatic lynch pin was Michele Pertusi as Count Rodolfo, tall and dashing of figure, and vocally without peer in this repertoire. Xanthoudakis got over a peaky, ill-tuned start to turn in an appealing performance as Lisa, whilst Elizabeth Sikora -always a dab hand for cameos - was vocally secure and dramatically warm as Amina's foster mother Teresa.

There are few more experienced conductors of Italian ottocento repertoire than Daniel Oren, and he proved a very safe pair of hands here. A satisfying evening then, and One that whetted my appetite for Opera North's new Norma in the New Year.

Next up: A mini Tchaikovsky-fest - The Queen of Spades (Opera North), Eugene Onegin (English National Opera)

Photo Credit: Bill Cooper/Royal Opera House

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