Royal Opera, Covent Garden, London, 16, 19, 22 25, 28 March, 1 April 2002
I must admit to having enjoyed this performance of La Sonnambula (the sleepwalker), an opera with a wafer-thin plot but ravishing music.
Bellini wrote it in 1831 after spending a holiday in Como, where he observed the folk tunes and simple lives of the Italian peasants. This is reflected in the many choruses and idyllic pastoral music which make up a large part of the opera. However it is punctuated by music that makes enormous demands of the principals - Amina, an orphan peasant girl, betrothed to Elvino, a local landowner. The florid coloratura has attracted such illustrious singers as Patti, Callas, Sutherland and Caballé and has not been heard at Covent Garden since 1981.
Amina is the eponymous sleepwalker, which gets her into deep trouble when she is discovered by the locals in the bedroom of Count Rodolfo, staying at a local hostelry. The remainder of the opera consists of Amina protesting her innocence to Elvino, who nevertheless cancels the wedding: she is only vindicated when later seen by the whole village sleepwalking across a narrow bridge, over the rushing mill stream. She achieves this feat without falling in, her betrothed is reconciled to her and all ends happily.
One would expect this perfect musical idyll to take place in a picturesque alpine village with bridge and stream both evident. Not a bit of it. In this production shared with the Vienna State Opera, Marco Arturo Marelli, the Swiss producer also responsible for the sets and lighting, has other ideas.
It takes place in a Swiss Sanatorium (a very impressive set on two levels, with panoramic views of the Matterhorn). Amina is a maid in this establishment and Elvino a piano-playing composer, allowing us to have a large grand piano on stage which in the second act, after Amina's fall from grace, we see turned on its side in an avalanche of snow. The poor girl has to negotiate this when she next sleepwalks, rather than a rickety bridge over the foaming water. M. Morelli has decided that some deep psychological significance can be attributed to sleepwalking and his production explores this aspect of the story - to little effect.
The problem is that both the music and the scenario are more suited to an unsophisticated interpretation, and do not benefit from a psychoanalytical approach. The setting, all black and white, although impressive looks dangerously like the first act of Jonathan Miller's Mikado at the ENO. Smart guests are seated for the pre-nuptial celebrations at long tables and are being served by a host of waiters and waitresses recalling Lyons Corner Houses...
The highlight of the evening was undoubtedly the magnificent singing of Juan Diego Florez as Elvino. This young Peruvian high tenor who specialises in Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini bel canto roles has an unerring sense of style, with a wonderfully sweet, secure and agile voice. Combined with this he is dark haired, slim and handsome, making him ideal for romantic parts.
Elena Kelessidi, a soprano born in Kazakhstan of Greek parents, was hard pressed to achieve this standard but she and Florez blended their voices beautifully. She is also young, dark haired and attractive and made much of Amina's innocence, singing the more lyrical passages most affectingly.
Unfortunately, the fiendishly difficult stratospheric coloratura element sometimes stretched her technique, especially in the final aria when she celebrates the return to her beloved Elvino. This comes after her precipitous sleepwalk over the avalanche and piano: when she wakes, for some unknown reason the producer brings down the curtain and she makes a quick change from her pure white nightie into a low-cut red velvet gown.
She then climbs on a table and - with the house lights on - stands alone, in front of the curtain, to sing this most difficult of arias. Only a Callas could have brought this off, and Kelessidi's inaccurate coloratura came as an anticlimax to an otherwise good performance. This was a major misjudgement on the part of the producer.
The orchestra and chorus under Maurizio Benini as always played brilliantly, and the supporting cast of Inger Dan Jensen as Lisa, Elvino's old flame, and Alastair Miles as Count Rodolfo, were excellent. The magic of Bellini's music carried the evening, but the production tried to be too clever for its own good.