Marco Arturo Marelli’s 2002 production of La Sonnambula certainly merits its present revival. Set in a “hotel or sanatorium in the Swiss Alps”, its elegant nineteenth-century design is composed of stony surfaces and wrought metal fittings which provide a cold, pale sheen in accord with the ‘snow‘ outside its walls. It is a sterile, insular world where an idle society is forever prying into the affairs of the central romantic characters. The chorus realises this excellently, with a somewhat unsettling, enforced collective gaiety throughout.
While the production is largely convincing, it has certain arbitrary elements. For example, the only apparent signifier of a sanatorium is a chorus member in a wheelchair, and there is little indication of mental illness among the characters, unless we count Amina’s sleepwalking in the context of nineteenth century psychology. (But the premise of the plot is that nobody knows what sleepwalking is...) Further, Elvino is tentatively portrayed as a composer; he sits at the onstage piano every so often, tearing out the pages of his score in despair as he mistakenly becomes convinced of Amina’s infidelity. The director’s effort to draw an autobiographical connection here with Bellini himself contributes little to the drama, and seems fairly superfluous.
Such small gripes aside, there is much to enjoy in this production. Foremost, as Amina, Eglise Gutierrez portrays the demanding title role with astonishing vocal ease in the coloratura fireworks, with a dark, luxurious tone sustained even in the quietest phrases. In her first sleepwalking scene, she expresses a genuine longing to consummate her love with Elvino. Her fiancé, however, does not receive a strong portrayal by Celso Albelo, making his Covent Garden debut. His voice sounds generally nasal and unsteady, his phrasing lacking in variety. He does, however seem to loosen up for the more impassioned passages at the start of Act 2, becoming less wooden and producing some impressive top notes.
The arrival of Count Rodolfo brings a colorful stage presence in the form of Michele Pertusi, whose suave buffo-bass and natural charisma are compelling. (Pertusi appears in all but the final two performances, when Christophoros Stamboglis takes over.) He was well paired with Elena Xanthoudakis’ Lisa, whose garish outfits and opportunistic flirtations create moments of whimsical humor. The slightly spiky tone to her voice is effective in characterising the bitterness of the role, without making her an overly unsympathetic character.
I am confused by the director’s decision to temporarily bring down the curtain towards the very end of the opera and have Amina sing alone in front of it, having changed into in a velvety, red ‘diva’ dress with lots of jewelry. Perhaps this is meant to symbolise her new emergence as a woman, but it seems to unnecessarily break the dramatic integrity. Having said this, Gutierrez’s diva-credentials are beyond question, and along with a generally strong surrounding cast and a streamlined orchestral accompaniment under Daniel Oren, the conditions for a satisfying evening of bel canto opera are in place.
La Sonnambula will be broadcast by BBC Radio 3 on Saturday 19 November at 6pm.