This rewarmed up production from 2002 may look sleek and appropriately art deco, but it really does not serve the story of the opera or the singers well. The action is stolid and some of the silly antics (cake trolley comes to mind and smoking by Lisa) have no connection to the narrative line of the piece and just create distraction. Removing the story from a simple village setting to a mountain top sanatorium (which looks like the foyer of an art deco cinema) was a pretty stupid idea even back in 2002. It deprives the work of it’s naivete and is trying to shoehorn the action into an one set affair, disregarding the needs of the action. Elvino doesn’t have a bedroom and Amina has to slalom down a snowed on table like a show dog at Crufts. My heart went out to the singers that had to push through all this unnecessary baggage and shine through.
I went not expecting very much of Albelo, after reading complaints from other bloggers of the first two performances. On the third he seemed to be a good match for Gutiérrez, they both possess dark timbred instruments with a warm tone. Unfortunately for him though, he seemed to be pushing quite hard to hit his higher notes. The obvious comparison would be with Florez, who in contrast may have all the high notes and secure technique but he is lacking on the human warmth that brings Elvino to life. In many levels he was satisfactory, especially in the duets with Amina but most of his arias were marred by his discomfort with the material, at times making us think he was auditioning for a Puccini opera. We needed a romantic hero with seamless legato and effortless production, we surely got shortchanged.
The role of Lisa is not so central to the action and this dreadful production has made it more slapstick than ever. Xanthoudakis sang with brio and charisma but somehow had a rather sharp delivery that was slightly out of sorts with bel canto.
Elizabeth Sikora, was a beautifully acted Teresa full of empathy but also unshaken trust for her daughter. She sang with security and open tone, one of the joys of the evening.
Michele Pertusi’s Count Rodolfo was seen by many reviewers as excellent, on the night he seemed over reliant on his cheeky part and not too married to the vocal requirements. His singing was smooth and well projected but somehow did not hit the mark as a complete character. But again I’d blame more the dreadful production than the singer.
Amina is a huge challenge for any coloratura soprano and there are very few that fulfill the requirements and can answer Bellini’s demands with aplomb. Eglise Gutiérrez is an extraordinary singer, she posses frightful coloratura technique and yet has a lower placed voice with powerful chest notes. It’s quite removed from the traditional nightingale sound with it’s airy delivery and stratospheric agility. The director did not make it easy for her, with fussy detailing and some very strange choices, he made her stagework much more difficult. Her opening Care Compagne was full of sweetness and affection. She continued with a definite cheekiness that was trying to imbue this lifeless production with some spunk. The rest of her first Act was beautifully sang and well ornamented. I cannot think of a single note she had to overtly aspirate or smudge her way to a D or an E. My only criticism would be that in that act she seemed to have gone for a more cautious approach. Her volume was quite low and seemed as if she was preserving her powers for the more difficult second act.
The clincher with any Sonnambula performance is her Ah! Non credea mirarti in the final scene of the second act. She delivered in spades. It was beautiful but also meaningful, that was as close as I have come to crying during an opera this year. Her flowing legato and solid vocal line was a marvel, alongside the placement of her high register. When it’s broadcast on Radio 3 listen in and see if you don’t feel a lump at the back of your throat. It was sensational! Bizarrely after this famously challenging aria and a tough cabaletta to follow the director asked for a dress change in a red velvet number beloved of Violettas the world over. The curtain came down and Amina walked on the proscenium to sing her Ah! Non Giunge uman pensiero and then the curtains opened and she walked on the table to conclude the evening with some truly extraordinary ornaments and topping it with a ceiling scrapping high F! I can’t imagine a single singer right now being able to pull it off in such fashion.
A special mention has to be made to the performance of the orchestra which was ropey at best, verging on to disastrous at times. Were they under rehearsed or was it all the fault of Daniel Oren and his singer unfriendly conducting? He seemed to spare little thought for Bellini’s actual tempi and to how the singers had to breathe to deliver their demanding coloratura. He lacked the finesse and the attention to detail a bel canto score demands. The first act felt like it was dragging on for at least two hours. At least in the second act things got slightly more brisk and the singers were better supported. It does not make sense inviting a hot rising star like Gutiérrez to front this singer’s opera only to let them down by shoddy direction, irrelevant sets and terrible conducting.
I will agree with Joyce DiDonato that ‘the world is lucky she is here’* and hope in the future the Royal Opera will offer Gutiérrez more roles that fit her extraordinary capabilities with new fresh productions that serve the music, singers and make Covent Garden look like a professional institution that takes its mission seriously. Bel canto needs dedication and the highest artistry, this production deserves to be binned soon after the last performance of the current run. How about a Semiramide Kasper?
The broadcast on Radio 3 is on 19 November at 6pm, tune in!
Tweets from the evening: