All the magic of theatrical illusion was brought to the stage by the prestigious Italian Opera Company, ‘Fondazione Arena di Verona’ on two nights last weekend, in their compelling 2006 production of Bellini’s 1831 semi-serious “La Sonnambula” at The Royal Opera House Muscat. Much of the achievement was a result of the naturalistic staging, with sets and costumes ingeniously designed by the famous Argentine Director, Hugo de Ana, whose work is characterised by pictorial insight, attention to detail and refreshing innovation.
The show opened with an idyllic pastoral scene, reminiscent of a tableau from Fielding’s ‘Tom Jones’, with the Chorus as village peasants in cleverly coordinating pastel shades. They were dotted precariously over the uneven hillside on an astro-turf carpet, which would prove a challenge for the singers as they moved about the stage, while rural projections behind suggested the changing countryside and mood throughout the performance. Contrasting in tone, the soloists were dressed in bright colours, reflecting their dramatic importance and also helping to identify them quickly. Bellini scored the whole of the first considerable scene with all the exuberance and sheer delight of a first, innocent love using traditional 6/8 dance rhythms and an on-stage rustic band – a fiddle, lute, alpine horn and shepherd’s flute – to anticipate the happy nuptials. One imagined “Far from the Madding Crowd” set in Switzerland.
The themes in “La Sonnambula” centre on Elvino’s obsessive jealousy of his betrothed, Amina, and question her virtue and fidelity. He, on the other hand, has affections as fickle as a lord and is not open to doubt. It is Desdemona to Othello’s suspicious mind, complete with the dropped handkerchief as evidence, though fortunately this does have a happy ending. The mediating force came in the mysterious, returned Count Rodolfo as a progressive, liberal-thinking stranger who brings an educated, enlightened approach; the Outsider. Conte Rodolfo was played brilliantly by Nicola Ulivieri who has a beautiful, rich and warm bass timbre, consistent to his role as a much more sympathetic character than his rival. He showed fine technique and evocative lyricism in his arias, such as the nostalgic, ‘Vi ravviso, O luoghi ameni’ in Act 1. This was ingeniously illustrated by the use of a telescope “projecting” his memories of a happier youth onto the landscape.
Antonio Siragusa enjoys an illustrious, world-wide career as an award-winning tenor since 1996 and did not let his reputation fail him as Elvino in this production. He portrayed dramatic, convincing emotions as a jealous lover, such as in his moving lament, “Tutto e Sciolto” at the beginning of Act 2, yet his somewhat forced, strained timbre in his upper tenor register was not to everyone’s taste.
Amina sleepwalks in response to her betrothed’s unfounded accusations and suspicions – a 19th century view of mental and physical “wanderings” as manifestation of madness or mental breakdown. In fact, the villagers told stories out of a Gothic novel of a ghost, a phantom who walks at night and puts fear into their hearts. Amina was superbly sung by the elegant, young lyrical soprano, Rosa Feola who honoured Muscat with her debut in the title role, La Sonnambula. She graces all the world’s best stages and is a rising star in the operatic galaxy of ‘bel canto’ singers. Rosa was dazzling in her performance, with perfect control in her impossibly high range, especially the coloratura cadenzas which embellished the conclusion of each aria. During her final sleepwalking aria in Act 2, “Ah! Non credea mirarti” (I didn’t believe you would fade so soon) she sings to the dying posy of violets which Elvino had given her during the first flush of their passion, she gained rapturous applause and cheers from an enchanted audience.
Amina’s step-mother and confidante, Teresa, was taken beautifully by the rich, warm mezzo-soprano voice of Daniela Innamorati who brought a secure gravitas to the mature role.
In light comic relief came the antagonist, Lisa, an Innkeeper and former lover of Elvino, equally jealous of his new love and bride-to-be. She was delightfully sung by soprano Barbara Bargnesi, agile in her coloratura phrases and amusing in her repulsion of her admirer, Alessio. The long-suffering, thwarted suitor was played by the only non-Italian in the cast, the nimble and quick-witted Korean bass, Seung Pil Choi. Together they provided the antithesis to Elvino and Amina’s psychological entanglement.
The accompanying 60-strong orchestra of the Fondazione was conducted by 60-year-old maestro, Antonello Allemandi who brought truly international experience and expertise to Bellini’s subtle and understated ‘bel canto’ (literally beautiful singing) score. The music was lyrical and easily accessible to first-time audiences. Much of the singing – solos, duets or chorus – was a cappella, so unobscured by heavy orchestration. The leading soloists had beautifully blended duet or ensemble sections, while the orchestra provided some rustic hunting scenes through brass calls, or evocative pizzicato backing to Amina’s surreal sleepwalking scenes.
Finally Amina’s innocence is confirmed through her sleepwalking, while poor Lisa has been caught out for nocturnal philandering, and Elvino can reclaim his bride by restoring his mother’s ring to its rightful finger. Waking, Amina’s confusion turns to joy when she sees her dream come true. But for how long is this a happy ending? Elvino’s suspicions could arise again, unjustified, and the audience was left to imagine the final resolution as the memorable tunes remained certain for future generations.