Monday, 14 November 2011

La Sonnambula

To Covent Garden on Saturday 12th November for the revival of Marco Arturo Marelli's 20th century sanatorium version of Bellini's La Sonnambula. As ever it looks handsome and provides an attractive setting for the vocalism, providing you can suspend belief rather more than usual. Bellini and Felice Romani's plot has the usual class condescension, requiring us to believe that the villagers are naive (stupid?) enough to believe in ghosts and to not know about the idea of sleepwalking. Also embedded in this class division is the assumption that the count's appearance, after the first sleepwalking episode, will clear things up; that aristocrats are basically trustworthy.

By moving it to the 20th century, Marelli requires us to stretch this further and believe this of the staff and inhabitants of the sanatorium. I can understand why he did it, after all the previous Covent Garden production of La Sonnambula which was traditional in its setting, really did the opera no favours either, the theatrical convention of setting operas in cutesy period villages doesn't usually work well in modern productions. The problem is that the basic premise of the plot requires us to forget about realism, so perhaps producers should be aiming at abstraction or magical realism. But on Saturday, we had to brush aside any doubts we had about the logistics and concentrate on the vocalism.

The revival was centred around the Amina of Eglise Gutierrez, the Cuban-American soprano whose previous appearances at Covent Garden have included La Fee in the recent Massenet Cendrillon  and a concert performance of Donizetti's Linda di Chamonix for Opera Rara. So this was our first chance to hear her in a staging of a piece of mainstream coloratura repertoire. Gutierrez has a fabulous sense of line, spinning out notes endlessly, which suits Bellini's style admirably. Her voice has a creamy evenness which spreads almost throughout the range; when I heard her as Linda di Chamonix I didn't need that 'almost' but on Saturday her very upper extension seemed a little thin and not quite evenly linked to the remainder of her voice, this only applied to the acuti and is really me being picky.

A bigger problem was the speeds that she chose. Conductor Daniel Oren seemed to be entirely complaisant, letting the soprano spread things as far as she chose. Whilst hearing Gutierrez spin lines out so beautifully was a complete pleasure, it wasn't something I wanted for the entire evening. Stunning though Gutierrez's singing was, ultimately I found her Amina a little too self-indulgent and self-regarding. A stronger hand at the conductor's desk would, I think, have cured this.

Tenor Celso Albelo as Elvino, making his Covent Garden debut, seemed to suffer somewhat from the slow speeds. He is possessed of a nicely focused bright, lyric tenor which he utilised to good effect. But his delivery in the upper register seemed at times to be rather laboured and I thought he might have found a fleeter performance rather more comfortable. But he too was guilty of self-indulgence, with Oren allowing him to extend his top notes far beyond what was musically acceptable.

Albelo's acting was of a limited, rather schematic variety, so his presentation of Elvino did not attempt any novelty or subtlety. I have always felt that productions tend to take Elvino too much at face value and that there is a great deal of potential for exploring the character's fundamental personality problems; the fact that he is essentially something of a shit with a history of dumping women.

Covent Garden had surrounded the lead couple with a very strong cast. Elena Xanthoudakis was a pertly bright Lisa. She relished the roles ambiguities and opportunity for displays of temper as well as flirting outrageously with Michele Pertusi's Count Rodolfo. Xanthoudakis contributed some nicely bright and correct coloratura in her solos. Jihoon Kim and Elizabeth Sikora provided good support as Alessio and as Teresa.

Michele Pertusi seemed to be having a great time as Count Rodolfo, flirting outrageously with all the girls and generally behaving in a charmingly irresponsible way. The role is rather under-written but Pertusi made much of what he was given and managed to dominate the stage by sheer charm and personality.

There was much to enjoy in this production, but by the end Oren's tempi won out and you felt that the performance could hardly get any slower. I couldn't help feeling that Gutierrez ought to return to Callas's recording of the role, not so much for the vocalism itself but the way Callas bring vivid character to every single not, with scarcely a trace of self-indulgence.

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