Less Pomp, Less Circumstance, and More of What Counts in Zurich’s La Sonnambula

11/05/2019

Bellini, La Sonnambula (concert performance): Soloists, Chorus of the Opernhaus Zürich, Philharmonia Zürich / Maurizio Benini (conductor), Opernhaus Zürich, Zurich, 9.5.2019. (CCr)

Cast:

Count Rodolfo – Kyle Ketelsen
Teresa – Fredrika Brillembourg
Amina – Pretty Yende
Lisa – Sen Guo
Elvino – Lawrence Brownlee
Alessio – Ildo Song
Notary – Omer Kobiljak

A line early in the libretto of La Sonnambula, the sleepwalker, says a lot about Pretty Yende’s marvellous rendition of the role of Amina, her premiere of it, in a concert performance of Bellini’s masterpiece in Zurich. ‘Even in her dreams, the girl is rapt in happiness’.

The funny thing about the audience’s happiness: people were in tears at Yende’s and Lawrence Brownlee’s singing, even as we witnessed their characters in recital dress. It cannot be a coincidence that it was this un-staged performance, of all things, that got the first full standing ovation I have seen in Zurich’s house. If you don’t yet go to concert-only operas, then let the Opernhaus’s Sonnambula sway you. Concerts have the precious ability to distil the experience of opera and render it all the more powerfully.

For one thing, opera is too expensive, and concert performances dispense with lavish costumes and sets, meaning cheaper tickets for the audience. Any opera company with a dauntingly tight budget or a fear of new repertoire should consider concerts as a way to keep or grow audiences.

For another thing, in a concert, the orchestra ditches its pit and is duly visible, and you can see much more of the mechanics of how a composer lays emotion into the instrumentation. Being able to see cellist Lev Sivkov introduce the arriving carriage of Count Rodolfo with his stupendous playing – any interest in starting a string quartet, Mr Sivkov? – reminds you that operatic scores are always undergirding the superficial stage, in ways that are all too easy to forget. Sivkov’s cello was later perfectly elegiac at Amina’s final tears.

You can also observe more easily the way a conductor brings the score to life, and wraps this sound around the singers. Mezzo-soprano Fredrika Brillembourg was standing in for an ill Liliana Nikiteanu, and had no trouble giving an intense reading of her role, despite being clearly under-rehearsed. The excellent conducting of Maurizio Benini made this possible, as he cued his singers firmly when the drama of the orchestra was at stake and cued his orchestra sensitively when the suppleness of the singing was. A droopy opening to Act I’s second scene and a muddied horn part during the great tenor aria ‘Prendi: l’anel ti dono’ notwithstanding, the shrewd bliss of Benini’s Bellini was the core of the performance’s success.

Perhaps the main advantage of concerts: it goes without saying that operatic storytelling can be tedious, and concerts leave the storytelling to the musicians alone. If the synopsis of La Sonnambula sounds dopey to you (it’s officially designated as only semi-seria), then I can attest that the essence of it, given the music, is quite moving: Amina and Elvino are a day away from getting married, but then Amina sleepwalks into the hotel room of Count Rodolfo (bass Kyle Ketelsen, stentorian in a good way) and is caught resting in his bed. Elvino, enraged at the apparent infidelity, agrees to marry another woman instead (Lisa). Both Amina and Elvino are gutted; Rodolfo and the villagers attest in vain to Amina’s goodness, but it’s not until she’s found sleepwalking again, speaking words of mourning for her lost love Elvino and wishing him joy in her anguish, that she is redeemed. Elvino sees the truth, she wakes up, and the couple is spared the abyss of misunderstanding. It may not be Kleist, but it doesn’t need to be; Bellini, 30 when the work premiered, suffused this tale with such nuanced and wistful song that the famous ‘endless melodies’ might as well be given top billing.

In general, people who don’t have much time for bel canto should have a close listen to La Sonnambula. The role of the choir can be actually interesting. The high C’s are more soulful and feel less like Donizetti’s musical chintz. The arches of its arias are far less predictable-sounding between cantabile and cabaletta, serene and mysterious as they accumulate. It asks for the finest singing, and was granted it by this cast. Sen Guo as Lisa takes great colourful descents from her coloratura pings. Tenor Lawrence Brownlee started off sounding stiff but even then had a lambent ring to his every note. His character of Elvino is perhaps the most tragic in the opera, and Brownlee’s confidence with this dark role affords him suppleness and force.

And Pretty Yende still managed to upstage him – though not with the pure mechanics of her singing (ordinary trills, less than lissom coloratura, iffy Italian). Yende gives every impression that she will continue to mature when it comes to the dozens of little points singers must always heed. When it comes to the big things, Yende is already there. She has sung some of Amina’s arias in recitals and recorded some in 2017, but it is in live singing that one sees the totality of Yende’s skill, and in this performance her sound was extremely beautiful. Even without sets and costumes, she made every word believable. Her singing is gravid with expressive sincerity, yet hovers in airy resonance.

Happiness indeed.

Casey Creel

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