Opera + Classical Music Reviews

La Sonnambula @ Royal Opera House, London

2 November 2011

Royal Opera House

Royal Opera House (Photo: Marc Eskenazi)

Bellini and Handel have many things in common, chief amongst them being the sense that each character in their operas has its crisis, performs an aria both to explore that crisis and to display the singer’s technique, then goes off and lets the next crisis emerge. Both composers attract a special quality of fanaticism in their admirers, and both are, more frequently than other composers, the victims of the ludicrous vanity of the director. Crucially, they also have in common the fact that if you havent got the singers, you shouldnt stage the opera. Dont programme Rodelinda unless you have Scholl, is sound advice – don’t programme Sonnambula unless you have Flórez, might be even more sensible. Flórez was the raison d’être when the work was last seen here in 2002, and he is much missed in the present revival.

It’s a neat touch that the setting for Marco Arturo Marelli’s production is broadly the nineteen-fifties, since that was the era when bel canto enjoyed its great revival of interest, but the overall concept is superficial, since the glacial cool of the mountains and the high windows of the sanatorium do not really add anything to our understanding of the narrative or characters. It all looked like a chocolate box, and became so tedious after a while that one found oneself longing for a few hoorays to come pelting down that virgin piste. As for the substitution of a wrecked grand piano and a few trestles for the rotting bridge, this presumably has some deep psychological meaning; I certainly hope so, since it had a negative effect on the aria which it is meant to frame.

The strongest singing, and characterization, came from Michele Pertusi, one of the very few singers before whose name one is tempted to write ‘the great’. His seamless legato, elegant phrasing and suave manner were exactly right for Rodolfo, and he made it even more absurd than usual that Amina should give her all to a nit like Elvino. Elena Xanthoudakis recovered after a somewhat rocky start to portray a sprightly, credible Lisa; just one query for the costumier (the directors wife) though – why was she got up to look like Dot Cotton? Jihoon Kim was a wonderfully smug Alessio, and Elizabeth Sikora gave a stellar performance as Teresa, singing with warmly burnished tone and captivating sympathy.

Eglise Gutiérrez is a vibrant stage presence, and her Amina was most successful in her final aria and her exchanges with Teresa and Rodolfo. ‘Ah! non credea mirarti’ was finely spun, if a little tentative, and ‘Ah! non giunge’ was spectacularly presented in vocal terms, although I question the notion that the innocent Amina needs to suddenly become a Hollywood vamp. Celso Albelo has a powerful voice capable of ringing declamation, but on this showing he is not ready to sing Elvino in this house. Albelo has a rapid vibrato under pressure, and many of his top notes were more than strained – indeed painful would be more accurate. This was not bel canto for anyone who actually knows what that term means. It’s possible that first night nerves and / or an incipient cold could have prevented him from being on his best form, but my feeling is that we may need to wait a few years to hear that.

Hardly a vintage evening at the ROH, but Gutiérrez was cheered to the rafters, and the reliable Daniel Oren’s direction of the orchestra provided much pleasure, as did Renato Balsadonna’s ever-vigilant direction of the chorus.

The production will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on November 19th at 18.00.

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