Vincenzo BELLINI (1801-1835) La Sonnambula Melodrama in two acts (1831)
Amina - Natalie Dessay (soprano); Elvino - Juan Diego Florez (tenor); Il Conte Rodolfo - Michele Pertusi (baritone); Teresa - Jane Bunnell (mezzo); Lisa - Jennifer Black (soprano); Alessio - Jeremy Galyon (bass)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Metropolitan Opera, New York/Evelino Pido
rec. March 2009
Producer: Mary Zimmerman. Set Designer: Daniel Ostling. Costume Designer: Mara Blumfeld
Television Director: Brian Large
Picture format: 16/9 Anamorphic Widescreen. Colour. NTSC all regions
Sound formats: LPCM Stereo. DTS 5.1
Subtitles in English, German, French, Spanish and Chinese
DECCA DVD VIDEO 074 3357 DH [138:00 + bonus]

The eyes of the bel canto enthusiast casually browsing his favourite composers in his high street record store, will light up at the sight of a DVD of Belliniís La Sonnambula. Although there have been two CD sets of the work issued in the last couple of years DVD versions are, to say the least, thin on the ground. On the cover our browser will see the lovers in 2010 mufti gazing into each others eyes, see the names of the singers involved and rush to make a purchase before stock runs out. He will realise from the picture that the production is updated, but that seems to be the pattern all too often these days and, in his excitement, he will not read any detail on the back of the case. But, as they say, the devil is in the detail. To be found there is a paragraph that mentions that the producerís groundbreaking new production offers a teasing interplay of reality and fantasy. Producers and their concepts are in favour with a few opera lovers, even if the composer would never recognise his own work if he saw the product without his musical contribution. This is very much the case here with the set being a rehearsal room in Manhattan with the cast and chorus rehearsing Belliniís musically sublime drama of a sleepwalker, the eponymous La Sonnambula. Intended for a pastoral setting in an historical period, when such manifestation was believed to be saturnine rather than medical, the whole is too full of illogicalities for me to enumerate them all. In a note from the director (pp.10-11) in the booklet Mary Zimmerman sets out to justify her interpretation of La Sonnambula, its first performances the Met in thirty six years. Our purchaser could only see that after buying. Like me, until I had viewed this DVD and looked back at the reports of the premiere of the production, he will know nothing of the booing it received, or the opprobrium heaped on Mary Zimmermanís concept, and to which I add my pennyworth below.

The diva arrives on the rehearsal set in chic mufti with cellphone glued to her ear as the chorus sing Viva Viva Amina (CH.2). The improbabilities go from there. The actual sleepwalking takes place on either the parapet or fire escape outside the windows of the rehearsal space. Amina then writes her loverís name on the blackboard. She wanders through the assembled cast to sing her display aria of desperation (CH.30) on a narrow stage extension that moves out over the orchestra pit. The various scenes are marked in chalk on the same blackboard before Aminaís tour de force. The only sign of pastoral Swiss village, until the very end when the cast change into costume, is a tiny framed painting that is easily missed and certainly not dwelt on by the video director. I looked very hard, but the only bit of producer imagination I could pick out was the chorus of villagers trashing their scores and throwing them all over the floor as they twist Aminaís bed round and round as she is discovered in the Countís room and her world is set topsy-turvy.

Of the CD issues mentioned that from Virgin (see review) featured Natalie Dessay as Amina whilst the Decca version had Juan Diego Florez as Elvino (see review). Both claimed to be performing the new Critical Edition by Alessandro Roccataglia and Luca Zappelli which involves various downward key transpositions. No such claims are made for the version here which has various cuts. When it comes to the musical performance overall it would be very difficult to better it in respect of the two lovers and the contribution of the Met chorus and orchestra under Evelino Pido. Dessay gets no younger, but is wholly involved in the interpretation, idiocies and all, throughout. Occasionally one feels she is having to throw the voice at the climaxes rather more than yesteryear. However her coloratura is secure as is her trill. Her set-piece arias, particularly Ah, non credea (CH. 31), are show-stoppers and her acted involvement cannot be faulted. Juan Diego Florez similarly gives his all as an actor fully conveying Elvinoís agonies and joyous moments. His tenor has both the flexibility and edge to make the most of the drama and does so with excellent musicianship. When he opens his voice in the high-lying passages he is not merely showing off his capabilities but also expressing the mood of the drama. He does not indulge in overt head voice in Elvinoís Prendi: líanel ti dono (CH.7) in the manner of Tagliavini in the Cetra CD issue. This is to the benefit of both words and context.

For some reason the Met cast the baritone Michele Pertusi in the role of Count Rodolfo rather than the usual bass. His tall figure, in long greatcoat, is certainly distinguished, although his rather languorous acting is sorely missed. As Lisa, who dishes the dirt on Amina being in the Countís bedroom, Jennifer Black is an actress and singer of great promise. She graduated from the Metís Lindemann Young Artist Programme in 2008 and is already making waves in the USA. She has all the promise of a considerable lyric soprano for the future. Old-stager Jane Bunnell is convincing as Aminaís mother figure. Jeremy Galyon sounds as though he might have made a more convincing Count than Pertusi.

In May 1830 the Duke of Litta and his associates formed a Society to sponsor opera at La Scala, Milan. They were concerned to raise the musical standards that had seen Rossini, Meyerbeer and others decamp to Paris. They engaged most of the famous singers of the time including Giuditta Pasta and the tenor Rubini. Donizetti and Bellini, whom they considered to be the two best active Italian composers, were each contracted to write an opera for the season to a libretto set by the renowned Felice Romani. However, Litta and his associates failed to secure La Scala for their plans, which were realised at the Teatro Carcano (Stelios Galatopoulos, Bellini, Life, Times, Music (Sanctuary 2002)). Belliniís contribution was further complicated by the necessity of a change of subject after he had composed five scenes. The outcome was the postponement and change to the politically innocuous subject of La Sonnambula. The change and postponement greatly frustrated Bellini who, nonetheless, went on to create in his evolving style of long melodic lines and cantilena, one of the loveliest and most tuneful of operas. The genre, of what is really semi-seria, seems to have become unpopular in the present day. In sixty years of opera-going I have managed only two performances of the work. One at Covent Garden in 1971 with Renata Scotto as Amina, the last time it was seen there, and with the young Stuart Burrows as a leggiero tenor without a high C. The second was at Manchesterís Royal Northern School of Music and featured Anne Dawson as Amina and Anthony Mee as Elvino. Since then, nothing! So my frustration at this travesty of Belliniís wonderful creation leaves me as frustrated as the composer was at the delay and alterations he had to suffer. Doubtless others will feel the same. As reviewer, I had to keep my eyes open. I suggest others, once tired of the idiocies of the production, just close their eyes and glory in Belliniís wonderful melodic creation and the soloists, chorus and orchestral performance captured here.

Robert J. Farr