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Sleepwalking in Baltimore

Vincenzo Bellini (1801–1835) is one of those composers who partnered very successfully and almost exclusively with one librettist, Felice Romani. The latter was a widely read and cultured man of letters, who was commissioned repeatedly -- perhaps too much for his own good -- to create libretti for the best composers of the day, including Rossini, Donizetti (L'elisir d'amore, Anna Bolena, and Lucrezia Borgia), and even Verdi (Un giorno di regno). In 1831, the team of Bellini and Romani premiered two important operas in Milan, La sonnambula (March 6, at the Teatro Carcano) and Norma (December 26, at La Scala).

Both operas had starring roles created for specific singers, the tenor Giovanni Battista Rubini and the soprano Giuditta Pasta. When Bellini was in Paris a few years later, he insisted on waiting until Rubini arrived in the French capital before composing any of the music for the tenor's role, Arturo, in his final opera, I Puritani. Since Bellini composed some rather famous (really) high F's in the third act of that opera, I guess he trusted what he heard. Shortly thereafter, Bellini finally succumbed to intestinal difficulties and died alone, in a house in Puteaux. It was an ignominious and sadly rapid end to what had already been a stellar career.

Romani took the story of La Sonnambula from a ballet by Eugène Scribe and Jean-Pierre Aumer, with music by Hérold, based in turn on the play by Scribe and Delavigne. The action is set in an idyllic Swiss village, in a time identified only as Epoca indefinita. Amina, an orphan girl raised by Teresa in the village, is about to married to a wealthy landowner named Elvino. Walking in her sleep (her nightly perambulations are mistaken for those of a phantom in the superstitious village), Amina innocently enters the hotel room of Count Rodolfo, the local ruler who is staying the night. Lisa, owner of the local inn, denounces Amina in the hope of scuttling the impending marriage. Ultimately, Rodolfo convinces Elvino to observe Amina sleepwalking, which he does, thereby being convinced of her innocence. To introduce listeners to their new production of this lesser-known opera, Baltimore Opera compiled this Study Guide on La Sonnambula.

La sonnambula, Baltimore OperaYes, here at Ionarts, we travel for opera, and last night we made the trip up to Baltimore to see the new production of Bellini's La sonnambula at Baltimore Opera. Director Federico Tiezzi apparently took Felice Romani at his word, turning the "unspecified time period" into what seemed like the Edwardian era, perhaps because of the sexual repression of the village in the opera, prudishly shocked by the appearance of impropriety in Lisa and Amina. In any case, Howard Tsvi Kaplan's costumes made the cast seem like they had stepped out of the movie Out of Africa, not a Swiss village in the distant past.

The inconsistencies in the staging piled up in the "second act" (actually the second part of the first act). Somehow, Count Rodolfo's bedroom was a couch under three umbrellas outdoors, a space that the characters had to enter through a detached doorframe. By the "third act" (the second act) and the noisy pieces flown in from above -- liked the metal fire escape that Amina walks across in her final sleepwalking scene, didn't like the huge and completely unnecessary shell meant to suggest the church of the final scene -- the staging had become a real distraction. This is not to mention the annoying, stylized hand gestures pressed on the singers by the director, which made them look like Disney automatons.

Happily, the music making was more satisfying, with an orchestra and vocal cast fairly well coordinated by conductor Steven White. The cast was generally strong, led by Gregory Kunde, the tenor whom I much admired in the top-notch production of Lucio Silla in Santa Fe this past summer. He debuted in Baltimore last season, to much acclaim, as Arturo in the devilishly difficult I Puritani. He has a pure and beautiful voice with strong high notes that never sound forced. Knowing that he sang Arturo's high F's last season, I imagine that he sang the D's in this role without transposing them down as many tenors do. Nineteenth-century accounts seem to indicate that most tenors, including Rubini, who created this role, sang most notes above A not in a full chest voice as singers do today and used a much lighter vocal production. Kunde's performance was lovely and never bombastic.

Other Reviews:

Tim Smith, A night of tossing and turning (Baltimore Sun, November 14)

Daniel Ginsberg, Baltimore Opera (Washington Post, November 21)
I admired coloratura soprano Valeria Esposito last season as Olympia in Tales of Hoffmann (see my review from last May). The chance to hear her as Amina in this opera definitely drew me back to Baltimore, and I was not disappointed. She gave a stirring and memorable performance, if perhaps lacking somewhat in power. Her technique of approaching very high notes suddenly, especially in the sleepwalking scenes (so it may have been an attempt at characterization), seemed slightly gimmicky, which works with Olympia but not here.

Much of the evening, she appeared to be holding back vocally, perhaps to hold something in reserve for her final cabaletta where she let fly the fireworks we came there to hear. As if in reaction to my comment that her Olympia did not end the big aria on a high A-flat like Natalie Dessay, she ended this on an extremely high note. I am not blessed (cursed?) with perfect pitch, but Mrs. Ionarts is a flutist and is familiar with these very high notes. She thought it was a high G. Whatever it was, it was high and pretty stunning. Amina's great cavatina "Ah, non credea mirarti si presto estinto, o fiore" (Ah, I did not believe I would see you extinguished so soon, o flower) is one of the prettiest melodies Bellini or anyone else ever wrote. The text also happens to be carved on Bellini's tombstone in Catania.

There were also good performances from rich mezzo-soprano Angela Horn (Teresa), and sonorous bass Elia Todisco (Rodolfo). Soprano Penny Shumate (Lisa) has a voice with power, but a lack of control often colored her intonation a few cents south of where it should have been. The Baltimore Opera Chorus, directed by James Harp, sang well and did the best they could with the stilted stage movements. Come on, you denizens of Charm City, get out there and support your fine local opera company. Performances remain on Wednesday (November 16, 7:30 pm), Friday (November 18, 8:15 pm), and Sunday (November 20, 3 pm).


Mark Barry said...

Traveling critic, your my hero!

Jessica said...

Thanks for an interesting and informative blog...check mine out!

Princess Alpenrose said...

Hey, Jessica! Welcome to the madness that is ionarts. It's one of my favorites, since Jens & Charles write "okay" reviews and Mark takes "okay" photos, especially when he's not pointing the camera at chickens.

I like your blog! (Hope you have better success at Peabody than I did, yes I can help you with the sidebar, I worked with T. in PA as well, and *please* do read my blog, too.)

Keep up the good singing & blogging and don't let these guys harass you (too much)!

Charles T. Downey said...

Jessica, thanks for reading. Don't mind Andrea: she thinks she owns the place.

Princess Alpenrose said...

I'm so very glad I don't own this place! Too much work...

(It's just, well, it's just such a fun playground!)

Charles T. Downey said...

I was joking, Andrea: faites comme chez vous.

Princess Alpenrose said...

Thanks, Charles. You are too kind!

ps I just got back from tonight's performance, & have much to think about for sure, but for now will sleepwalk straight to bed...

Time for comments tomorrow!

Brett said...

The holding back on the soprano's part sounds logical to me. Wasn't it Pasta who took a while to warm up during operas? So, Bellini would write relatively lightly for the first couple acts and then give her a warhorse to conclude with. I think. Yes, Pasta's a different singer, but a similar phenomenon could be at work--or Ms. Esposito used that as a frame of reference (also for scope, perhaps). Also, I would gladly sit through a rather understated "Care campagne..." (due to aggressive pacing) if that meant the Amina would sing the schtuff out of "Ah, non giunge"--one of my favorites.

(Haha! Now they think you know what you're talking about! You're such a tricky devil, Brett!)