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Eglise Gutiérrez as Amina [Photo by Bill Cooper courtesy of The Royal Opera House]
05 Nov 2011

La sonnambula, Royal Opera

Bellini’s La sonnambula does not have the most gripping or convincing of opera plots: a young girl sleepwalks into a stranger’s room, where she is discovered by her fiancé; disbelieving her pleas of innocence, he jilts her and plans to wed another; but, she is vindicated when she is spied on a nocturnal wander, and the lovers are reconciled.

Vincenzo Bellini: La sonnambula

Elvino: Celso Albelo; Amina: Eglise Gutiérrez; Lisa: Elena Xanthoudakis; Count Rodolfo: Michele Pertusi; Alessio: Jihoon Kim; Teresa: Elizabeth Sikora; Notary: Elliot Goldie. Director: Marco Arturo Marelli. Conductor: Daniel Oren. Orchestra of the Royal Opera House. Royal Opera Chorus. Set designs: Marco Arturo Marelli. Lighting designs: Marco Arturo Marelli. Costume design: Dagmar Niefind-Marelli. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Wednesday, 2nd November 2011.

Above: Eglise Gutiérrez as Amina

Photos by Bill Cooper courtesy of The Royal Opera House


However, the wafer-thin text is more than compensated for by the composer’s ravishing score and reams of gorgeous melody.

SONNAMBULA ©BC20111029238 - KIM AS ALESSIO (C) COOPER.pngJihoon Kim as Alessio

It’s a simple tale and needs a light touch. Sadly, in this revival of Marco Arturo Marelli’s 2002 production, both the presumptuous direction and Daniel Oren’s sluggish tempi weigh down the proceedings, and the result is narcotic.

Not trusting the music itself to provide depth and insight, Marelli has given the opera a ‘psychological makeover’. Thus, the Swiss village setting is replaced by an Alpine sanatorium (intended, we are told, to suggest the world of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain) where Elvino – no longer a local landlord but a composer – has been undergoing treatment since the traumatic death of his mother. Bellini’s orphaned maid, Amina, to whom Elvino is betrothed, is now a waitress at the sanatorium. So, we have no gentle pastoral woods and byways, rather a sublime mountain-scape panorama, visible through vast atrium windows; sublime, that is, until an avalanche crashes through the windows and ruins the grand piano! And the site of the opera’s only really dramatic event – the narrow bridge over the rushing mill stream upon which the villager’s witness the precarious exploits of the sleepwalking, thereby proving her innocence – is also dispensed with. Instead, Anima has to navigate her way across the wreckage of the piano. Nineteenth-century village yokels are replaced with bustling nurses in crisp uniforms and wheelchair-bound patients sporting modern evening dress. It’s enough to send us all to the asylum.

SONNAMBULA ©BC20111029200 - PERTUSI AS COUNT RODOLFO, GUTIERREZ AS AMINA (C) COOPER.pngMichele Pertusi as Count Rodolfo and Eglise Gutierrez as Amina

But, bel canto is all about the singing, so perhaps some high-class performances could rescue this production from insanity and inanity? Sadly, our Elvino, Spanish tenor Celso Albelo, could not provide the stature and presence required. While his diction was good and his tone sweet and pure, some incredible high notes and considerable vocal agility could not compensate for a total lack of charm. Albelo’s acting was leaden, and he needs to use his face more expressively to ensure a fully convincing sense of style.

As Amina, Eglise Gutiérrez demonstrated a beautifully tender pianissimo, floating, delicate upper notes, and an expressive vibrato. Crucially, however, her Italian is very poor, and occluded diction destroyed the inherent line of the melodies whose elegance is so intimately rooted in the language. Gutiérrez also adopted an overly fussy approach to the demanding coloratura. The florid passages stretched her technique to its limits, and she simply didn’t have the notes, especially in the final aria, in which she celebrates her lover’s return. Gutiérrez wasn’t helped by Marelli’s decision to bring the curtain down at the very moment she wakes, swap her demure, white nightgown for a plunging, scarlet velvet gown, and force her to stand on a table to deliver this fiendish number. With soloist and conductor wildly adrift, it made for an anticlimactic ending.

The rest of the cast were solid. Elena Xanthoudakis did a good job of conveying Lisa’s bitter jealousy, and mastered the stratospheric pyrotechnics (though why is she costumed as a lusty barmaid?); and as Count Rodolfo, Italian bass-baritone Michele Pertusi was appropriately authoritative and resonant. Elizabeth Sikora sang the role of Teresa, Amina’s foster mother, most impressively, making much of her powerful interjections. Jihoon Kim (Alessio), a Jette Parker Young Artist, and Elliot Goldie (Notary), a member of the ROH chorus, were reliable in their minor roles.

SONNAMBULA ©BC20111029261 - ALBELO AS ELVINO, XANTHOUDAKIS AS LISA (C) COOPER.pngCelso Albelo as Elvino and Elena Xanthoudakis as Lisa

Bellini composed the opera after a holiday in Como, where he admired the landscape and simple pastoral lifestyles of the inhabitants; the folk music he heard inspired him to create the beautiful, quite substantial, choruses which abound in the score. The Royal Opera chorus were a bit ragged, but they did have to endure Marelli’s silly stage antics; the instrumentalists of the ROH orchestra fared better, despite Oren’s uninspiring, tentative guidance.

But, although Marelli’s sweeping scenic designs are pleasing to look at, the production’s psychobabble is pretty unpalatable.

Claire Seymour

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