I sonnambuli

It wasn’t only Amina who gave an impression of sleepwalking through yesterday evening’s La Sonnambula at Covent Garden.  There was a subfusc dreariness that settled over the whole enterprise.

Admittedly, it picked up in the second half, but the persistent lack of spirit was never far from the surface.  I think this is to be mostly attributed to Daniel Oren’s soporific, even limp, reading of the piece, but the lead soloists are also to share some of the responsibility.

I remain baffled by Eglise Gutiérrez.  I read others’ reflections on her performances and they wax lyrical about her trills and her stratospheric capacities, and I have no desire or reason to contradict them.  She can clearly turn her voice to some remarkable things.  And yet… there is something so controlled, so husbanded about these moments that there is almost the feeling of a separate gear into which she must shift in order that she can despatch the complexity of the more fiendish passages.  Having been disappointed by her Linda di Chamounix, I thought her La Fée in Cendrillon to be a wonderfully ethereal and glitzy performance.  Here, she didn’t deliver a particularly effective ensemble performance, and drafted in many stock operatic acting tics: collapsing into chairs; stretching out arms; clasping bosom, quite frequently facing the audience.  And all the while, it was an individualistic, showy, but not especially thrilling sort of vocal performance.  I longed for the sort of extrovert style that Damrau or Dessay bring to this sort of business, certainly with brighter tone, if not the sort of fearless danger that Dessay exhibits.  Yet, in each sparkling moment, somehow it all went cool and slightly dimmed.  Her final number was enjoyable, but its solo success somehow just confirms what was missing from the rest of the performance.

The same allegations of coolness couldn’t be levelled at Celso Albelo as Elvino.  The Canarian tenor displayed a brash approach to Bellini, with some quite remarkable ‘yelping’ for the money notes that entirely broke any line or flow.  He did manage some more beautiful passages, but alas by then the expectation of a convincing dramatic portrayal had long been set aside, so they failed to really make any impact.  I remain to be convinced of his position in the much-vaunted ‘future of bel canto’ leagues…

The stage was consistently enlivened by Elena Xanthoudakis and Michele Pertusi as, respectively, a sassy Lisa and a Rodolfo of coy gravitas.  I really noticed Elizabeth Sikora as a rich, strong, characterful Teresa.  I actually thought (and you’ll have gathered that there was plenty of time for musing) that she would make an excellent Marquise de Berkenfield in La Fille du Regiment.

The production itself was an elegant single set: greys and greens forming an art deco (art nouveau?) hotel interior.  Squeezing everything into this richly-designed space took a few liberties with the story (her precipitous sleepwalking on a cliff-edge was transposed to a wobbly table, for example).  The closing passage, which Amina begins in front of the opera house curtain, was a nicely refreshing view, which was probably also telling in its way.  I’m not sure people moved very efficiently around the set: the chorus looked as though they had been left to their own devices a lot of the time; the lighting was nothing to write home about.

As I write, I realise I’m sounding grumpy and uncharitable.  By the end of the first act, I was viewing this as one of the most dull, boring, lacklustre hour-and-a-bits I’d spent in an opera house (and particularly this opera house) for a long time.  A bronchial, bangle-jangling, item-dropping Saturday audience seemed to agree.  By the close of the piece, I was a bit more conciliatory.  So what would most have improved matters?  I think it has to be a more dynamic, engaged approach by the conductor.  Slow numbers were dragged out beyond their fragile capabilities; and no matter how well the ROH orchestra played, the more spritely numbers consistently failed to take flight.

At this, my first viewing of this gentle piece, there was enough of a glimpse into its qualities to make me look forward to a further encounter with Sonnambula.   However, in itself, I can’t say that this was an entirely satisfying encounter with the work.

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