Florida Grand Opera's new production of Bellini's La Sonnambula is not to be missed. One of the most demanding and beautiful of all operas now emerges as what can only be called a sublime musical landmark for this company, for this city, and for music lovers everywhere. Running here through February before moving to the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in March, this is a Sonnambula for the ages.
The music is ravishing: If any score can be called perfect, this is it. The plot is simple. In a tiny Swiss village, Amina, a girl on the eve of her wedding sleepwalks her way into another man's bedroom; her bridegroom's former girlfriend catches her in this predicament and, before the poor girl even wakes up, the whole town is talking. The wedding's off, but not for long. The gentle pastoral comedy comes to a close with a feast of smiles. The whole affair starring Leah Partridge, directed by Renata Scotto and conducted by Richard Bonynge is drenched in gentle languor, and it takes patience as well as virtuosity to bring it to life.
The beautiful Partridge sang like an angel and looked like a sigh. On stage she cut the figure of a romantic ballerina, given gestures by Scotto that hovered sweetly between real life and dance. Her singing was, well, spectacular. It had effortless coloratura, light and airy phrasing, full command of dynamics if not always of nuance, with a welcome smoky color to the middle and chest tones that I did not remember from her previous appearances. Her secure, easy top soared up to a radiant E-flat. Sleepwalking in the footsteps of Maria Callas, of the great Joan Sutherland, of Scotto herself, Partridge sounded like none of them and made the music her own florid cadenzas and all. That, by the way, might be the mark of Bonynge's genius. There is no conductor alive who is as sensitive to the human voice as this Australian, and it is a mark of his approach that everyone in the cast sounded ideally suited for his or her role. Well-judged rubatos, long legatos, impeccable breath support, and just plain gorgeous singing were the order of the day. Bonynge seemed to breathe along with his singers, and they rewarded him and the audience with superb artistry.
Bruce Sledge, a young lyric tenor whose voice probably is still maturing, was an attractive Elvino to Partridge's Amina. As the nasty Lisa, Jennifer Zetlan was witty and winning, a most entertaining rival. The lower voices were impressive, including the commanding David Pittsinger as Count Rodolfo. It is high time to hear Liam Moran in bigger roles, by the way. As Lisa's leftover suitor Alessio, this tall and slender bass has an easy stage manner and a deliciously rich instrument, making it seem that maybe Lisa didn't get such a raw deal after all. The gorgeous sets by Carlo Diappi, all muted colors and abstract suggestions, were as refined as they were evocative. Guy Simard's lighting, so disappointing in the company's current Manon Lescaut, was just right for Scotto's elegant vision. Every element of the production, in fact, seemed just right. The chorus sang and acted impeccably.
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This was no mere reconstruction of a nineteenth-century classic, although that would have worked too. Certainly Bonynge's thrilling, authoritative conducting would have pleased the most demanding cognoscenti of the Romantic Age at least as much as it does music lovers of our more jaded times. But there was no mistaking Scotto's staging with anything but a contemporary, original vision of a timeless masterpiece. Alive and fresh, here is bel canto for the 21st Century.
Among the production's many virtues are those that happen to have made Scotto's own singing career brilliant: an economy of dramatic and musical methods in which no action is superfluous, nothing rings false. This director made every gesture, every word, and every note count not only with the impeccably directed principals, but also with smaller roles and the all-important chorus. Even more important, Scotto obviously loves the Italian tradition of which she herself is such a dazzling exemplar. This was real affection, not mere nostalgia.
To take just one miraculous example in an opera filled with them, the final scene alone makes this new Sonnambula the operatic event of the season. This justly famous extended number, with its two contrasting arias, embodies not only everything one needs to know about the simple country girl Amina, but also everything that is sublime about the human voice. Scotto once told me, "All of Italian opera can be heard in 'Ah! Non credea,'" and she's right. And the way she staged it, as well as the closing "Ah! Non giunge," revealed her own deep connection to this repertory.
There is no water mill, no dangerous plank in Diappi's abstract set, but what there is provides an even more perilous situation for the sleepwalking Amina. Then, in an unexpected set change and glorious change of mood, Amina awakens to a burst of joy as if from a bad dream. She sings "Ah! Non giunge" all the way downstage, directly to the audience, bejeweled, transformed in every way. This detail has a long tradition, going back to the opera's original success with Maria Malibran in the Nineteenth Century. In the Twentieth, it was revived by Luchino Visconti for Maria Callas at La Scala, in the same production that made Scotto a star though the always down-to-earth Scotto skipped the jewels. It was later used, as an homage, by Gian Carlo Menotti in his production at the Spoleto Festival. And now it's used again by Scotto in Miami, also in sweet tribute, but with a wondrous coup de theatre that can only be called a gift. I do not want to give it away, but let me just say that I have rarely experienced such pure joy in the theater. This final scene that made the audience rise to its feet and cheer long and loud at the Carnival Center Saturday night, and for good reason.
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