Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Drowsy Damsel

Sam Shirakawa went to Bonn early in July to pick up a performance of Bellini's La Sonnambula:

Bellini: La Sonnambula (New Production - Premiere)
Bonn 3 July 2011

When the Metropolitan Opera mounted a “concept” production of La Sonnambula two seasons ago, audiences mostly hated it. But they did like most of the singing.

Which goes some way to show that opera, moribund though it may be, is still about singing.

If audience reaction at Theater Bonn’s premiere of Roland Schwab’s new production of Bellini’s masterpiece is admissible evidence, staging that appears to make sense and singing that indubitably thrills are still a winning combination.

Schwab’s designer Frank Fellmann and costumière Renée Listerdal have set the action in a picture-postcard Alpine village and clothed its inhabitants with attractive late 19th century garments. A large scale model of the town dominates the stage, directly under a mysterious cylinder, which at turns sheds light and levitates furniture. What is it supposed to represent? My guess is that Schwab & Co. are taking a telescopic look through this tube at a Drowsy Damsel and her tribulations.

The conclusions from his sightings are clearly speculative, given the spotty evidence produced by the libretto: Elvino (Marco Laho), the most eligible bachelor in the village, dumps his betrothed Amina (Julia Novikova) when he leaps to the false conclusion that she is unfaithful and turns his affections to Lisa (Emiliya Ivanova), another village maiden, only to return to Amina after he is convinced by a stranger (Rodolfo), who coincidentally turns out to be the long-lost son of a local nobleman, that she’s no floozy after all.

A shrewdly staged wedding photo-op in the final tableaux speaks to Schwab’s findings -- snapshots of unsmiling faces portend a dysfunctional marriage for the suspicious groom and his narcoleptic bride. Such a view might have worked even more effectively had Theater Bonn obtained the services of a soprano with a dark voice to portray the sleepwalking Amina. After all, quasi-mezzo Giuditta Pasta created the role in 1831, and short-lived but deep-throated Maria Malibran (1808-1836) reportedly made a specialty of it. Jenny Lind (1820-1887) became the model for the high-flying songbirds that popularized the opera until the middle of the last century, when Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland each turned Amina’s nutty perambulations into vocal case studies.

Russian soprano Julia Novikova settles for driving the audience nuts with her coloratura flights of ecstasy, as Amina awakens from her somnolent wanderings, preceded by a rapturously melancholy rendition of “Ah, non credea mirarti.” She has the requisite notes, breath, musicality and confidence to transmute the fiortitura into dramatic expression. What the sound of her voice lacks in its present estate is effulgent warmth -- that enamoring puissance which taps into the listener’s innermost reserves of sympathy. But Novikova is still young; Lucrezia and Norma still await her, beckoning.

She was admirably partnered by the Belgian tenor Marc Laho as Elvino, who recently was a winner at the Pavarotti Competition in Philadelphia. Despite occasional pitch issues and a stage presence that needs some work, he supplied non-stop the warm Italianate lyricism that eluded some of his colleagues. When he was good, which was most of the time, he was very good indeed, obviously having profited from listening to recordings of di Stefano and Alva.

Martin Tzonev made Rodolfo compelling with his sonorous bass-baritone. The cast was nicely rounded out by Emilyia Ivanova as Lisa, Susanne Blattert (Theresa), Sven Bakin (Alessio) and Josef Michael Linneck (Notary).

The Beethoven Orchestra of Bonn played with its usual verve under Robin Engelin's direction, though not always with its customary precision.

As the current season winds down, Theater Bonn is facing another round of government subsidy cuts on top of deep slashes that forced the closure of its resident ballet company. Even if the nightmare ends, which probably won’t be soon, what is left could be no more blissful than Roland Schwab’s view of Amina’s awakening.

©Sam H. Shirakawa

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