Bellini’s pastoral opera “La Sonnambula” made a welcome return to La Fenice, in a revival of Bepi Morassi’s 2012, widely-acclaimed production. In this outing, conducted by Fabrizio Maria Carminati, Irina Dubrovskaya played the role of Amina, with Shalva Mukeria as Elvino and Roberto Scandiuzzi as Rodolfo. The minor roles were undertaken by Julie Mellor as Teresa, Silvia Frigato as Lisa and William Corrò as Alessio.
Bel Canto in Extremis
In many ways “La Sonnambula” can be seen as the example, par excellence, of 19th-century bel canto opera, possessing many of the positive and negative characteristics in extremis, that typify the genre. Bellini wrote the opera specifically to show off the voices of Giuditta Pasta and his favorite tenor, Giovanni Battista Rubini, and hence the work contains aria after aria and duet after duet of exquisite beauty, requiring great vocal skill and technique. Singers embarking on the roles today are, therefore, given plenty of opportunities, supported by Bellini’s inspired melodies, to display their own technique and the quality of their voices. Any errors, however, will be cruelly exposed. The best singers rise to the occasion and wow the audience, the second-best fall by the wayside. The plot is, to put it mildly, thin; without Bellini’s
The plot is, to put it mildly, thin and without Bellini’s music, there is nothing here to capture the attention. Simply put, it is a story of a peasant romance that, owing to a misunderstanding resulting from some misplaced sleepwalking, hits a rocky patch, but eventually, after some further somnambulant wandering ends happily ever after. With the possible exception of Rodolfo, and to a lesser extent Amina, the characters lack depth and exhibit little or no psychological development. La Sonnambula is, thus, first and foremost a showcase for singers.
A Challenge For the Director
All of which poses a big problem for the director, namely, how to create a dramatic staging of the work that rises above the banal, that engages the audience and generates an interest in the characters and their stories, whilst at the same time remaining true to the spirit of Bellini’s music, and allowing space for the singers to display their wares. In the hands of the wrong director, we can be left with a flat production that may or may not be rescued by the singing.
Morassi took as his starting point the films of the Tyrolean director, Luis Trenker (1892 – 1990). Mainly created in the 1930s, the films present an idealized world, emphasizing people’s connection with their homeland and the decadence of city life, an era in which the first World War had been forgotten and the horrors of the 2nd had yet to be realized. His films used the alpine scenery of his hometown and were populated by sophisticated tourists, sporting the latest ski ware, alongside the more genuine local folk. Although it may not be obvious as to why this era and place, and why Trenker’s films, in particular, should provide a suitable backdrop for a production of “La Sonnambula,” it does, in fact, fit well.
For sure, transferring the drama from an 1830s village to a 1930s high alpine ski resort does create some incongruities, most notably at the beginning of Act 2, where a party of tourists, who are loading their skis onto a bus, ready for a day on the slopes, sing about Amina’s plight and their intention of traveling to Count Rodolfo’s castle to bring the matter to his attention, even though they would not have had the slightest notion of who these people were. Morassi’s decision, nevertheless, proved to be an excellent idea indeed! Firstly, it added greater depth to the drama: by having the city elite populating the same space as the local country folk, it brought their naivety to the fore, a characteristic that drives the plot of “La Sonnambula,” but one that can easily be missed in a traditional staging, and in the process explains Elvino, Lisa and Amina’s behavior. Secondly, it adds a comedic element to the drama. On the observation deck, for example, the local folk in traditional costumes celebrate Amina and Elvino’s forthcoming marriage with a folk dance, which is totally at odds with the setting, as the amused visiting sophisticates, sipping their aperitifs, watch-on. Thirdly, it allowed for the creation of some truly stunning mise-en-scene, such as in the first act, again set on the resort’s observation deck, a Swiss flag fluttering in the alpine breeze, surrounded by snowy mountains, and into which a cable car arrives to deliver the tourists along with Count Rodolfo.
Morassi was aided by Massimo Checchetto, the scenographer, who really did produce some eye-pleasing effects, and the costume designer, Carlos Tieppo, who designed an array of 1930s costumes, perfectly suited to the ambiance of the set, yet jarring enough when set next to the villagers in their traditional folk attire.
A Risk-Taking Leading Lady
Having acknowledged Morassi’s fine contribution to this production, the burden for a successful performance of “La Sonnambula” still lies primarily with the singers, and in particular with Irina Dubrovskaya, who was cast as Amina. Physically attractive with a slight build, she suited the role perfectly, suggesting the vulnerability and naivety of a young woman, who is still adjusting to her awakening sexual emotions. She produced a scintillating if imperfect portrayal. Her acting was first class; her gestures were always well-placed, and her vivid expressivity brought the character to life, highlighting her naivety, purity and the joys of new-found love in a sympathetic and believable manner. Her reactions to being found in the Count’s bed, after unknowingly sleepwalking her way into his bedroom, followed by Elvino’s subsequent rejection of her, were infused with pathos. She made a convincing Amina, one with which the audience could readily sympathize.
Dubrovskaya has a strong, crystalline soprano, with marvelous technique: her phrasing is subtle and flexible with an array of colors, her dynamic control is formidable, moving easily from soft pianissimo to fortissimo. She has a stable, controlled legato and is able to take leaps in her stride, and hits and sustains the high notes with apparent ease. Her fioritura is a delight and she ascends and descends scales for fun. All of which she employed with enthusiasm and to great effect, bringing depth and subtlety to Amina’s character. Nor was it only in the arias or ensemble pieces that Dubrovskaya was able to shine – her recitatives were also beautifully phrased and delivered in her, sometimes, rapid exchanges with other characters. Yet, as already stated above, this was not the perfect performance.
A number of Amina’s arias stand out as being particularly beautiful, and obviously, audiences will focus on these, amongst which is included the famous, ‘Ah! non giunge uman pensiero’ which brings the opera to a close. Her presentation of this aria illustrated not just Dubrovskaya’s undoubted talent, but also the occasional problems that detracted ever-so-slightly from her performance, which seemed to stem from her willingness to take risks. The orchestra started up with a polka rhythm, Dubrovskaya entered, her tone sweet, light and joyful and skated nimbly across the score delivering a liberating sound, darting up and down the scale. As the chorus made its first interjection her voice soared easily above, and dominated the orchestra in the process. Her ornamentation in the fioritura passages was brilliant and controlled, but as the opera reached its climax and the orchestra and chorus combined for the final time, Dubrovskaya overreached herself, and forced her voice a step too far, which caused her sound to harden, becoming almost (but not) a scream, and was not particularly pleasant on the ear. This and other small blemishes detracted, but only slightly. Nevertheless, and notwithstanding the small flaws that occasionally surfaced during the performance, Dubrovskaya produced a compelling performance as Amina and carried the role beautifully, perfectly balancing the naïvety, joy, and suffering which defines her character.
(As a footnote: in the original 2012 production, which is currently available on DVD, Amina was played by Jessica Pratt, and good as Pratt is, Dubrovskaya is to be preferred in this role; her voice has a lighter timbre to Pratt’s and conveys the naïve vulnerability of Amina more successfully.)
Less Risk-Taking From the Leading Man
Whereas Dubrovskaya was happy to take risks, the same cannot be said of Shalva Mukeria, who played the role of Elvino. Mukeria has a powerful sweet tenor, which is indeed, a pleasant sounding instrument and easy on the ear. However, he did not like leaving his comfort zone at all and avoided all opportunities to explore the upper reaches of the voice. Ornamentation was kept simple and fioritura passages were always delivered in a perfunctory fashion, and rarely outside his middle range. Characterization was minimal and his ability to vary the dynamics was almost non-existent, limiting himself to forte and fortissimo. His acting ability can best be described as wooden. At certain points during the performance, it verged on embarrassing, with Dubrovskaya putting in a first class performance, next to Mukeria who barely moved.
Nonetheless, Mukeria navigated his way through the evening, staying within his own narrowly prescribed limits, and did produce some very pleasing music. In his duets, although second best to Dubrovskaya, he did match her power, and at times their voices blended very well indeed. Ultimately, one was left wondering why two women were so entranced with this man. At the curtain call, he received polite applause.
Roberto Scandiuzzi produced a superb performance as Count Rodolfo. From his first step onto the stage, when he descends from the cable car, he exuded authority. Although originating from the region, he is clearly a man of the world, sophisticated and knowledgeable, not one to be taken-in by talk of phantoms, wandering in the night. Scandiuzzi convincingly gave a multi-layered interpretation of the Count, at times exploiting his position, at others noble and gallant. When Amina wanders into his bedroom we are privy to his deliberations – should he or shouldn’t he take advantage? One element that did not work, however, was having him examining a book about sleepwalking during the final act. It simply added clutter to what was in any case, a nicely constructed scene, and gave the impression that he needed help in remembering his part. Scandiuzzi possesses a secure bass and his arias were greatly welcomed by an appreciative audience. What stood out, however, was his ability to deliver his recitatives. His ability is so highly polished that he could have been delivering a masterclass in the art. His subtle coloring, inflections and the dynamic shadings of the words was truly a joy to observe.
Rest of the Best
Silvia Frigato made a good impression in the role of Lisa. Her voice is strong, fresh and bright and she coped well with the vocal demands of the part. She portrayed a coquettish minx, more than ready for a bit of fun, and quite ready to take advantage of situations as they arose. It could be argued, however, that she came across as too manipulative at times – Bellini’s music does not suggest she is particularly devious or a bad person, more just a naïve young woman pursuing her own ends.
Julie Mellor was a sympathetic and likable Teresa, and Alessio, the put-upon peasant, who had the bad fortune to fall in love with Lisa, was played by William Corrò. He possesses a well-rounded bass and performed his small part with a great deal of vigor.
The Orchestra del Teatro La Fenice under the direction of Fabrizio Maria Carminati put in an energetic, lively and well-balanced showcase, which positively sparkled in the faster sections. He elicited some wonderful textures from the orchestra, especially from the woodwind section, and maintained a good balance between the stage and the pit throughout the afternoon. The chorus was in top form, thanks to some good work from the Chorus Master Claudio Marino Moretti.
This revival of La Fenice’s 2012 production of “La Sonnambula” will no doubt remain in the company’s repertoire for a number of years, and deservedly so. It has successfully elevated a fairly banal story to a level more in line with the quality of its music.