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A Wiccan Somnambulist on the Roof

Teatro Real
12/15/2022 -  & December 16, 18, 19*, 23, 26, 27, 29, 30, 2022, January  2, 3, 4, 6, 2023
Vincenzo Bellini : La sonnambula
Nadine Sierra/Jessica Pratt* (Amina), Xabier Anduaga/Francesco Demuro* (Elvino), Rocío Pérez/Serena Sáenz* (Lisa), Roberto Tagliavini/Fernando Radó* (Count Rodolfo), Monica Bacelli/Gemma Como‑Alabert* (Teresa), Isaac Galán (Alessio), Gerardo López (A Notary)
Coro Titular del Teatro Real (Coro Intermezzo), Andrés Máspero (choir master), Orquesta Titular del Teatro Real (Orquesta Sinfónica de Madrid), Maurizio Benini (conductor)
Bárbara Lluch (stage director), Christof Hetzer (set designer), Clara Peluffo (costumes), Urs Schönebaum (lighting), Iratxe Ansa, Igor Bacovich (choreography)

J. Pratt, F. Demuro (© Javier del Real/Teatro Real)

Bellini’s La sonnambula is the quintessence of bel canto and of Italian romanticism. Its heroine, the innocent Amina, is a fragile “Eternal Feminine” as opposed to another more sensual operatic “Eternal Feminine,” Isolde.

The plot, as is usually the case in bel canto operas, is quite simple. On the eve of the wedding of Amina and Elvino, a stranger arrives in the village. He turns out to be the son of the village’s late Count. The superstitious villagers recount the nightly appearance of a ghost. The latter turns out to be Amina wandering in the night in a state of somnambulism. The Count realizes Amina’s condition when she wanders into his room in the village inn. Denounced as unfaithful by Lisa, the innkeeper and Elvino’s previous love, the villagers and Elvino are astounded to find her in a stranger’s room. The wedding is off and Elvino decides to wed Lisa instead. In the second act, the Count explains Amina’s condition, confirmed by her appearing in a trance on a ledge, unaware of the danger. Safely grounded, Elvino awakens her and begs forgiveness, after which Amina sings of her immense joy.

This rather slight plot is a pretext to some of bel canto’s loveliest melodies and most beautiful arias, duets and ensembles. Long seen as the emblematic consecration of the reigning bel canto coloratura soprano of the day, it was championed by such legendary singers as Lina Paliughi, Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland and Renata Scotto, and more recently by Lucia Aliberti, Luciana Serra, Patrizia Ciofi, Natalie Dessay and Annick Massis. Opera lovers and especially fans of bel canto are especially keen to attend La Sonnambula as it’s invariably a showcase of first‑rate singing. Teatro Real’s production achieves this purpose, and features two truly exceptional casts.

I had the privilege to attend performances with both. I preferredd the artist portraying Amina in the performance I am choosing to review. Vocally, Australian soprano Jessica Pratt is an ideal Amina. Unlike most coloraturas, her ductile voice is a large one with a huge range. It is a rich voice with natural trills. Her singing is expressive and her Italian diction, flawless. Her Elvino is Sardinian tenor Frncesco Demuro, whose style is elegant, diction impeccable and high notes secure. He is somewhat wooden on stage, but this may be due to the awkward staging. The innkeeper Lisa is also a coloratura soprano but her voice is very different from Pratt’s. It’s a small voice, but it’s expressive, and less acidic than many assuming this somewhat malicious “seconda donna” role.

Fernando Radó was a dashing Count Rodolfo; his voice imposing and his demeanor appropriately aristocratic. The orchestra was conducted with aplomb by veteran bel canto conductor Maurizio Benini. He is perhaps too much of a singers’ conductor, as he often resorts to slow tempi to suit a singer’s needs. Only in the opera’s magnificent final aria, “Ah non giunge uman pensiero” was the tempo truly upbeat.

As brilliant as the vocal performance was, the staging by Barbara Lluch was a terrible disappointment. The setting is a bucolic nineteenth century Swiss village. As the protagonists’ names, Amina, Elvina, Lisa, Alessio and Teresa indicate, the action does not take place in German-speaking Switzerland. As there are several references to “tempio” (temple) rather than “Chiesa” (church) in the libretto, we can surmise the action is set in a Protestant rather than in a Catholic canton, hence eliminating Italian-speaking Ticino. The mountainous and mostly Protestant French-speaking cantons are Neuchâtel and more likely the much larger canton of Vaud. As one who both lived and traveled extensively in Switzerland, I can assure you there is no place as hideous as Barbara Lluch’s setting in that country, not even a city’s industrial park. It’s a pity this stage director felt compelled to eliminate the idyllic setting which perfectly suits this charming opera and its beautiful singing.

The premise, it would seem, is that Amina is a somnambulist due to a traumatic event in her past. As for the inhabitants of the small and possibly isolated Swiss village in the Alps, they were shown to be Wiccans who practice a form of paganism. This is manifested by the pagan designs on the clothes used during the celebration; the crowns of twigs worn by the betrothed couple; and various gestures by the villagers. True, several isolated Alpine villages have their share of superstitions, but to make them fully‑fledged Wiccans is absurd, especially in a Protestant village which would have long suppressed such “un‑Christian” traditions.

Strangely enough, the costumes were somewhat Swiss for the men, namely as shepherds with hats, but the women were dressed in either Dutch, Puritan or Amish costumes. Vive la diversité! Other absurdities included the Count’s room at the inn being an open‑air space, where this would only be possible in July and August in the Alps. This seasonal detail clashes with the snow in the opera’s finale. More importantly, if the room was indeed a campground, finding the sleeping Amina on the grounds is a far less scandalous cause for suspicion.

The culmination of ugliness was the mill in the second act. There is indeed reference to “il molino” (the mill) in the libretto. However, this mill was a wood‑logging venture, not a mill that would grind grain into flour. The surroundings were so desolate they resembled those for Puccini’s La fanciulla del West in the American prairies. Slightly less ugly was the “Wiccan” or “Protestant” temple in the final scene – a hideous boarded‑up square structure one would imagine in an American TV show, a scenario in which people might wander into Amish villages holding unspeakable secrets.

Most disturbing were a sylvan corps de ballet, who are supposed to represent the night creatures that haunt Amina’s mind and cause her somnambulism. Poor Jessica Pratt must be swirled by these creatures. Isn’t singing demanding enough?

The final scene takes place on a ledge atop the village’s temple. It’s not clear how Amina was able to get there, a feat difficult enough for the fully-conscious. Though the libretto clearly distinguishes between the introduction of the finale and the sad “Oh! se una volta sola, revederlo io potessi.” Up to the end of introduction, the villagers are mesmerized by Amina, who risks death falling off from the ledge. When they say “E salva” (she is saved), we know she has safely gone down. Moreover, when she sings the glorious final aria, “Ah non giunge uman pensiero,” she is meant to be in Elvino’s arms.

To keep us guessing, Lluch has Amina remain on the ledge until the end of the opera, hence the simple Swiss villagers turn out to be simple‑minded to say “E salva” when she is anything but safe. During the moving “Ah non credea mirarti,” Elvino is sitting under the ledge, when logic would have him watching and rooting for Amina during her perilous predicament.

Despite the absurdity of the staging of this final scene, there was a lovely visual effect of snow falling which accentuated Amina’s melancholy. Overall, Urs Schönebaum’s lighting was quite effective despite the hideous sets, as it managed to set the mood on several occasions, especially in this aforementioned scene.

Modern-day interpretations of seminal operas can be stimulating, in the right hands, especially those of an erudite, innovative stage director. However, in this patchy production, the gratuitous introduction of the implausible served no purpose (e.g., the Wiccan faith of the villagers), and unexplored ideas (Amina’s psychological trauma) fell flat when not elaborated on. These pointless distractions do not serve the work, the artists involved, or the audience.

Ossama el Naggar



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