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A Swiss Fairy Tale

09/06/2023 -  & September 9, 13*, 2023
Vincenzo Bellini : La sonnambula
Pretty Yende (Amina), Javier Camarena (Elvino), Maria Nazarova (Lisa), Roberto Tagliavini (Count Rodolfo), Szilvia Vőrős (Teresa), Jack Lee (Alessio), Wolfram Igor Derntl (A Notary)
Chor der Wiener Staatsoper Thomas Lang (choir director), Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper, Giacomo Sagripanti (conductor)
Marco Arturo Marelli (stage director, sets, lighting), Dagmar Niefind-Marelli (costumes)

P. Yende, J. Camarena (© Wiener Staatsoper/Michael Pöhn)

La sonnambula (1831) is possibly the quintessential opera of the bel canto. Beyond the florid vocal writing that shows off the prowess and mastery of technique of first rate singers, bel canto operas involve a high degree of drama, especially involving the suffering heroine. 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 is revealed to be none other than 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.

Opera plots usually involve love, complication and resolution, either by death or reconciliation. Today’s stage directors often attempt to add complexity to the lightweight plots and yield mixed results. When the stage director’s innovation is unrelated to the plot, it is inevitably a miserable failure that undermines the whole performance. On rare occasions, it is in harmony with the plot. The Wiener Staatsoper’s production is fortunately one of the latter.

Marco Arturo Marelli’s setting is faithful to the place, an Alpine Swiss village, but not to the period. Instead of the early Nineteenth Century, the action takes place in the 1920s in a posh hotel. The new period allows for Art déco elegance. Amina is one of the hotel’s waitresses. Her station in life adds to the modesty of her character. The opera opens with her wedding ceremony to Elvino, a well‑to‑do village notable. The guests and the hotel staff are seated at the ceremonial lunch banquet. Amina, in her waitress uniform, arrives and is surprised that the ceremony is her own wedding. While an ingénue, such naivety is perhaps a bit excessive.

South African soprano Pretty Yende managed to effectively portray a naive and vulnerable Amina. Her slow hesitant movements, her absent‑minded gaze and her congenial interactions with the hotel guests and staff affirm Amina’s nature from the beginning of the opera. Vocally, Yende is able to face the role’s vocal demands, though she is not Italianate enough. Her Italian diction is more than acceptable but this role needs more. For effective bel canto, the words and the music have to be intertwined. She more than compensates for that limitation with her excellent acting skills.

Vocally, she is a lyric soprano rather than a coloratura. Again, one hoped to be dazzled by an exceptional vocalità in this pivotal bel canto role. In her opening aria, “Come per me sereno..sovra il sen”, and her final aria, “Ah non giunge uman pensiero”, most of her high notes are well supported, but the required fireworks were absent. However, the timbre of her voice is rich and pleasant and she is a superb actress.

For the opera’s finale, the curtain went down after “Ah non credea mirarti” where Amina is still in a sleepwalking spell remembering her beloved Elvino at the altar. It reopens to Yende dressed in a haute couture red evening gown and wearing a diamond necklace. She goes on the banquet table to sing the opera’s finale “Ah non giunge uman pensiero”. The extravagant dress and jewelry bring on an appropriate fairy tale element. It is also a homage (most likely a conscious one) to Jean‑Pierre Ponnelle’s staging of the final aria, “Non pìu mesta” in Rossini’s La Cenerentola.

The star of the show was Mexican tenor Javier Camarena, possibly the best Elvino around. Vocally at ease in the role’s high tessitura, he dazzled with his vocal prowess. His Italian diction is impeccable and he gave a most moving performance despite the character’s relative shallowness. Elvino is rather fickle: previously engaged to Lisa, he moves on to Amina until the sleepwalker is found in Count Rodolfo’s room. He then immediately decides to return to Lisa until her own frivolity is revealed and Amina’s innocence is ascertained.

Elvino’s weak character is reinforced by the stage director portraying him as a mama’s boy by having him hold on to his dead mother’s portrait at various moments of the opera. His rendition of “Ah! Perché non posso odiarti, infedel, com’io vorrei!” was ardently passionate. The most moving moment of the performance was his reaction to Amina’s“Oh! se una volta sola, revederlo io potessi... A non credea mirarti”. His phrasing of “Io pìu non reggo a tanto duolo“ was most affecting.

Italian bass Roberto Tagliavini was a noble Count Rodolfo. Class and elegance come naturally to this singer. His posture and gestures were truly aristocratic. His rendition of his Act I aria “Vi ravviso, o luoghi ameni” was majestic thanks to his rich bass and elegant phrasing. In the final scene, this production has him guide Amina in her ravings in her somnambulist state by laying her wedding veil on the floor and placing a chandelier to evoke the wedding ceremony. This was a brilliant touch by stage director Marco Arturo Marelli.

The role of Lisa is a tricky one, as she too is a light lyric soprano endowed with a decent coloratura. Russian soprano Maria Nazarova was an ideal Lisa, as her voice is slightly acidic reflecting her unpleasant character and contrasting with Amina’s warm timbre. A brilliant actress, her every move and gesture reflected her nastiness. Her rendition of her Act I aria “Tutto è gioia, tutto è festa... Sol per me non non v’ha content” was exemplary.

Hungarian mezzo Szilvia Vőlős was an outstanding Teresa, Amina’s adoptive mother. She made this lacklustre role come to life thanks to her rich mezzo and her strong stage presence. Though she has no solo aria, she stood out, especially in the Act II ensemble. One hopes to hear her soon in bigger roles.

The chorus plays a prominent role in this opera and the Chor der Wiener Staatsoper was up to the challenge. For a non‑Italian choir, they had excellent diction. Moreover, stage director Marelli made excellent use of them by blocking them as a chorus in a Greek play, witnessing and commenting.

Conductor Giacomo Sagripanti led the world’s best orchestra, as the Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper is none other than the Wiener Philharmoniker (OWS is its nom de plume when it performs opera). Bellini was a master of melody but a modest orchestrator. Nonetheless, Sagripanti managed to bring out the pathos in the music more than any other conductor I have heard in this work.

The public, with a strong contingent of foreigners, likely tourists, were ecstatic. Both Yende and Camarena were generously applauded. The red dress and diamonds in the finale thrilled the audience. Stage director Marco Arturo Marelli managed to transport the public to a fairy tale realm, a real accomplishment for a melancholy opera, despite its happy end.

Ossama el Naggar



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