La sonnambula - Royal Opera House, 2 November 2011
The Royal Opera House have hit a season low with this limp revival of Marco Arturo Marelli's uninspired production. The only high point is the suavely sung Count Rodolfo of Michele Pertusi. Wigged up and suited George Clooney style, he unexpectedly emerges as a bit of a silver fox as well as an authentic bel canto baritone of distinct flair and elegance.
The rest is another matter entirely.
Marelli is himself Swiss, so he more than anyone should understand Bellini's Swiss rural setting is integral to music and plot. Instead he sticks it in what he claims to be a Swiss sanatorium - though you might imagine it to be Mussolini's dining room if you hadn't read his programme note.
In place of villagers credulous enough to mistake a sleepwalker in a wafty nightie for a ghost, we get tight-lipped sophisticates straight out of Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom. The sleepwalking bride-to-be wakes up not in another man's bed but flat out on the dining room floor - which is where she changes into her bridal gown in front of the assembled diners too. Just a couple of the perils of a single set. While all around her is art deco glamour, minxy barmaid Lisa is inexplicably dressed for an '80s office party. Hang on, barmaid - isn't this supposed to be a sanatorium?
Many in the audience would be unaware that the production makes a nonsense of the text. The increasingly capricious ROH subtitling simply omits the problematical stuff about the great outdoors and Rodolfo's room (as well as arbitrarily mistranslating a few lines for no apparent reason at all). If they did the same for Peter Grimes, or any other English-language opera, there'd be a riot, so why are foreign languages considered fair game?
Marelli is credited not just as director but as designer and lighting designer, with his wife on costumes. That's a lot of fees for one questionable show.
If the musical values had been higher, I might not have cared about the production. But Daniel Oren favoured such bizarrely funereal tempos, the whole thing seemed to be happening in slow motion. He lost the chorus (admittedly not in their best form) more than once. To their credit, the orchestra stuck together much better than they did for the Domingo evenings.
Pertusi aside, the singing was disappointing - especially for an opera that's all about the singers. Eglise Gutiérrez wasn't helped by Oren's leaden pace, but even so that's no excuse for her blank, charmless Amina. Her basic instrument is strikingly individual, and her technique, trills'n'all, well-honed, but she deployed this winning package with a striking lack of taste or musicality. Her YouTube performances indicate a strong, dark voice of some power, quite at odds with the breathy coloratura and choked acuti she delivered on this occasion. Her fussy placing of each and every note lends her singing a halting quality, utterly lacking in spontaneity, impeccable legato notwithstanding. Someone must have told her some time that every note counts - they should have added 'but not equally'. Combined with occluded diction and a seeming indifference to text, the net result left me colder than the snow that swept irrelevantly in through the stage window.
Celso Albelo is an unpolished diamond, a tenor of some promise, but altogether too roughly-hewn for the role of Elvino. Unlike this production's original Elvino, Juan Diego Florez, Albelo lacks ease and elegant phrasing. What he does have is an unfakeable human warmth and a powerful, nimble voice, with a thrilling edge that emerged rather too late in the evening. He hit his top D cleanly, even if it was still obvious how hard he works for it. Combined with the acting skills of Pavarotti, and a waistline that appears headed in the same direction, he will need to work hard on that voice to make good on his promise.
The energy of Elena Xanthoudakis's Lisa went some way to compensate for the woodenness elsewhere; unfortunately she had a lot of intonation problems. The veteran Elizabeth Sikora, always reliable, delivered a stylish and surprisingly lovely Teresa. Jihoon Kim, a Jette Parker Young Artist, made an impact as Lisa's jilted suitor Alessio, not just for his dark, authoritative bass, but his confident dramatic skills as well.
The applause was enthusiastic, bordering on wild, so I'm sure there'll be some comments of the 'my wife and I saw this and enjoyed it enormously' type. Personally I'd rather scale the Matterhorn barefoot than see it again.
production photos (above): Bill Cooper for Royal Opera House
curtain call photos (below): intermezzo.typepad.com
And finally, Kyoko once again whipped her camera out of her Birkin to bring you this curtain call video: