Opera directors must have decided that the plot of La Sonnambula is so silly that it can never be performed in its proper period. The only other production of this opera that I have seen was set at an Edwardian picnic. For the Met's new production, director Mary Zimmerman sets the opera in a rehearsal room, so that it looks as though we are seeing a rehearsal of the opera with the principals and chorus in their everyday clothes. I'm not convinced by this approach. Obviously 19th century audiences found the idea of sleepwalking quite sexy, the idea that a young woman might wander into someone else's bedroom without knowing what she is doing. We are more blasé about sleepwalking today but it still pops up as a defence in murder trials where husbands claim to have strangled their wives in their sleep.
What really matters is that it gives us the chance to hear the world's two leading bel canto singers at the height of their powers. Juan Diego Florez and Natalie Dessay are simply sensational and, unusually for bel canto, they get the chance to show off their ability in a series of duets. I have never heard such precisely phrased duet singing apart, perhaps, from the Everly Brothers.
Mary Zimmerman's staging is most effective in the sleepwalking scenes. In the first, Natalie Dessay enters at the back of the theatre and wanders through the audience. In the second she walks along the window-ledge on the outside of the rehearsal room. Then, a section of the stage moves forward so that she is suspended over the orchestra pit to sing the sleepwalking aria which is the climax of the piece.
I have been watching the Met chorus all season so it was a treat to see them in their everyday clothes without wigs and costumes. Finally, everyone does dress up in their Swiss villager costume for a sort of parody of a traditional production. Natalie Dessay is tossed in the air as she hits one final spectacular high note. I was walking on air too.
Notes and Editorial Reviews
Out of Bellinis ten operas Norma is today firmly established as a standard work while both I Puritani and La sonnambula appear now and then in the opera houses or, as here, in concert performance. Once in a while I Capuleti ed i Montecchi also gets an outing but to catch one of the others one has to be lucky indeed. The reason for the neglect has less to do with the quality of the music than the lack of drama. Also the music offers little true theatrical writing, Bellini being much better equipped to write beautiful melodies and atmospheric backdrop than creating musical characters of flesh and blood. La sonnambula, playing in a rural setting in the Swiss Alps, has a great deal of outdoor feeling but the events unfold at a leisurely speedRead more at a time it is the early 19th century when the hurly-burly of todays asphalt-jungles was an unknown quantity. To put it bluntly: Amina is not the only character that displays a somnambulistic behaviour in this opera. Newcomers to the work have consequently been duly warned: there is no blood-and-thunder to be expected.
But this doesnt mean that the opera should be written off as a non-event. One simply has to change to another wavelength, where people whisper rather than roar, where they walk rather than run and where they think before they act. This last statement is not quite true, however, since the whole conflict is based on a misconception from Elvino, who thinks that Amina has done what she definitely hasnt. Elvino reacts in misunderstanding and wont accept any explanation. But who can blame him finding his bride-to-be in the bedroom of another man a stranger moreover dressed in a nightie? Since this opera is not a tragedy everything is sorted out in the end and Amina gets an opportunity to sing A non giunge just before curtain-fall, explaining the happiness that fills her. Someone who hasnt followed the libretto properly might misconstrue the situation and believe she has gone mad, since that is the common reason in romantic opera for indulging in vocal acrobatics.
Armed with the libretto and prepared to be drawn into a sea of lovely melodies and lyrical moods, anyone with an interest in good singing will be in for a really enjoyable occasion. Forget what you have ever read about Bellini being harmonically meagre or contrapuntally incompetent or any other drivel youve come across. Others may have been his superiors in these fields and I dont believe that he ever had the ambition to challenge any of his illustrious contemporaries but he knew what he was good at. Here are rich opportunities to get the very special Bellinian brew served by the best waiters and waitresses around, supervised by a restaurateur who knows exactly how to get the most out of a visit to this tavern.
Evelino Pidò is an experienced conductor of the early 19th century bel canto repertoire. I have heard him in both Rossini and Donizetti and he is just as much at home in Bellini. He doesnt rush things, which is a common mistake when conductors feel they have to brush up Bellini. But up-brushed Bellini often means vulgarized Bellini, and vulgar is the last adjective one can apply to this composer. He is sensitive and Pidò understands this. Bellini may rarely be exceptional in the way Rossini and Donizetti frequently are, but when he is, as in the chorus that opens act 2 with the horn solo and the plucked strings accompaniment, then Pidò brings this out.
But it is Pidòs staff that carry the day and centre-stage is his head-waitress Natalie Dessay, who seems to do everything right at the moment. She has a brilliant voice and her coloratura technique is superb but what makes her special is the sensitivity of her lyrical singing. Amina is in a way more or less in a dream-world, even when she is awake, and the inwardness and vulnerability of the poor girl is touchingly expressed. Whether intentionally or not she is not always perfectly steady and the tone production has patches of unevenness but this only enhances the impression of a real human being in a sorrowful state of mind. The tone is sometimes as thin as a silver-thread and as a listener one almost stops breathing, not to worry her further. This is a deeply-felt reading that requires to be heard. For once the slogan Dessay is Amina wouldnt be out of place.
And she isnt alone in excellence. The young Francesco Meli, born in Genoa in 1980, turns out to be an excellent lyric tenor in the Alfredo Kraus mould. He has all the enticing mellifluousness needed for the role but also the plangent incisiveness of the older singer. This makes him stand out as something more than just another tenore di grazia. His honeyed delivery of Prendi, lanel ti dono (CD 1 tr. 8) is a splendid calling-card for this upcoming singer, who excels further in a sensitive duet with Amina at the end of the first scene. Furthermore Carlo Colombara triumphs as a true basso cantante with even, smooth, flexible delivery. Vi ravviso (CD 1 tr. 11) has rarely been sung with such warmth and elegance.
In the minor roles Jaël Azzaretti sports a bright and flexible soprano with a personal vibrato as Lisa, Sara Mingardo is an excellent Teresa and Paul Gay manages to breathe some life into the few lines he has to sing as Alessio.
The sound is splendid, deriving from live concert performances as well as some mopping up I suppose without an audience. Presentation is first-class and all in all this must now be regarded as the recommended version. Maria Callass version is not entirely out of the reckoning, even though it isnt one of her happiest recordings. Neither of Joan Sutherlands two recordings is really competitive either. The best alternative, and it is at budget price as well, is actually the ten-year-old Naxos set with Luba Orgonasova and Raúl Giménez, but now it has to take second place after this superb offering from Lyon.
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La sonnambulaby Vincenzo Bellini
Performer: Jaël Azzaretti (Soprano), Francesco Meli (Tenor), Sara Mingardo (Alto),
Natalie Dessay (Soprano), Carlo Colombara (Bass)
Conductor: Evelino Pidò
Orchestra/Ensemble: Lyon Opera Orchestra, Lyon Opera Chorus
Written: 1831; Italy