LA Sonnambula : Attractive but Hardly Convincing

SpainSpain Bellini: La Sonnambula, Liceu’s Orchestra and Chorus, Daniel Oren (conductor), Barcelona’s Liceu, 1 & 2.2.2014 (JMI)

4497-073 Florez,
La Sonnambula
Photo: Copyright: Antonio Bofill


Amina: Patrizia Ciofi/Annick Massis
Elvino: Juan Diego Flórez/Celso Albelo
Count Rodolfo: Nicola Ulivieri/Michele Pertusi
Lisa: Eleonora Buratto/Sabina Puértolas
Teresa: Gemma Coma-Alabert
Alessio: Alex Sanmartí
Notary: Jordi Casanova

Production: Wiener Staatsoper and Royal Opera House Covent Garden
Direction: Marco Arturo Marelli (original)
Julia Burbach (revival)
Sets: Marco Arturo Marelli
Costumes: Dagmar Niefind
Lighting: Marco Arturo Marelli and Friedrich Eggert

The Liceu has programmed two different casts for La Sonnambula, and they should be considered as purely alternative since the ticket price was the same. Unfortunately, Diana Damrau cancelled as Amina a few weeks ago, and this had some effect on the quality of the performances.

The stage production is the well-known one by Marco Arturo Marelli which had its premiere at Covent Garden in 2002. It has since traveled to various countries and has been seen in Vienna (more than 50 times), Paris and again in London. In the program notes, Mr. Marelli explains his vision of the opera which he based on Vincenzo Bellini’s stay at a mountain resort near Como; there he was visited frequently by Giuditta Pasta, the first Amina.

 The action is set in a sanatorium in the Swiss Alps, where Elvino is a composer (I guess in honor of Bellini) and is obsessed by his mother who has recently died. He falls in love with Amina, an employee of the sanatorium. Giuditta Pasta is evoked in the final scene, where Amina appears as a bejeweled diva in a red dress to sing the final rondo. There is a single set, a luxurious dining room with a large window to the left that overlooks an alpine landscape and the opera begins with a dinner in honor of the wedding of Elvino and Amina, with costumes brought into the 20th century. The staging is not well suited to Amina’s first sleepwalking episode which should take place in the Count’s room but occurs in the same large dining room. At the end of the first act, a violent Elvino angrily throws furniture at the large window. The second act takes place on the same set but with some piled-up furniture, probably the result of Elvino’s wrath. The final sleepwalking scene, seen through the large window, is highly implausible.

 Mr. Marelli’s conception is more than questionable: it is improbable in an elitist environment like this sanatorium and in the 20th century that one would find people who believe in ghosts. This would be much more believable in a rural setting prior to the 20th century. The transition of Amina from a simple employee to a major diva only makes sense as a tribute from Mr. Marelli to Giuditta Pasta, but it has no dramatic sense. The direction of the actors is appropriate, particularly with regard to the character of Lisa. In short, the staging is aesthetically attractive but hardly convincing.

 Daniel Oren’s musical direction was unsatisfactory. This conductor is the opposite of Christian Thielemann as far as gestures are concerned. His arms move like a windmill and his jumps are worthy of a gym, but his gestures did seem to impress some people in the audience. What matters are results and in this case his reading was rather boring: his tempi were far too slow and lifeless. The orchestra showed again their positive evolution, although their sound was better in the hands of Sir Andrew Davis in Cendrillon. As usual, the choir was irreproachable.

 The surprising cancellation of Diana Damrau brought Patrizia Ciofi into the first cast. Judging by a few truly vociferous people in the audience, one would have thought that Giuditta Pasta herself were playing the part of Amina, but these partisans achieved their purpose. They persuaded some people in the audience that we had attended an historical interpretation of Amina, although nothing could be further from reality. Patrizia Ciofi has always been an expressive singer and performer on stage, and she retains those qualities, but her voice has never been very attractive and it has not improved with time. What has changed are the two extremes of tessitura: at the top she is now much tighter than before, and as for the low notes, they do not exist. Giuditta Pasta has not been reincarnated in Patrizia Ciofi, much as her fans tried to convince the audience of it. It is true that she sang with gusto the aria Ah, non credea mirarti, but that’s it.

 In the second cast Annick Massis sang Amina and, for me, she was much better than Patrizia Ciofi, offering an attractive soprano, well handled and with a good dose of expressiveness.

 Juan Diego Flórez proved again that in his natural repertoire – and Elvino has always been part of it – he is unrivaled. He sang with elegance and exemplary phrasing. His beautiful voice continues to be the same as in the past, and I believe that he is perfectly cast as Elvino. He missed holding the final note in the aria Ah perchè non posso odiarti, which he has accomplished so many times. I was surprised, and it may have been due to health problems, judging by some gestures he made ​at the final bows.

 Celso Albelo was not totally successful in his debut at Liceu. From my point of view the reason does not lie in his voice or his singing technique, and even less in his top notes, but rather in his superficiality as an interpreter of Elvino. I have often said that the top notes are like cherries on a cake, but not the cake itself. Celso Albelo knows that he has all the expensive notes, whether written or not in the score, and seems to consider them the true goal of his singing.

 Nicola Ulivieri was a fairly routine and modest Count Rodolfo, far from the elegance and excellent phrasing of Michele Pertusi in the alternative cast, although he was a little short of volume.

Eleonora Buratto was an outstanding Lisa in vocal terms. I was sorry that she did not sing Amina as her voice seems perfectly suited for the character. She was excellent in her two arias. As for the interpretation of the character, I prefered  Sabina Puértolas in the second cast: she was more credible on stage and quite good as a singer.

There was a good performance from Gemma Coma-Alabert as Teresa, possibly the best I’ve seen from her. Alex Sanmartí was well suited to Alessio.

José Mª. Irurzun