La Sonnambula, written in 1831, was Bellini’s seventh opera but the first of the three works by which he is still best known; the others being Norma and I Puritani. It would be easy to mock the plot or to regard it simply as an excuse for vocalism of the loveliest kind. That however would be to underestimate it. The libretto is by Felice Romani who a year later wrote the libretto for Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore. Whilst the latter is an opera comica and the former an opera semiseria they share a recognisable rural setting in Switzerland or Italy and a cast of characters that might be encountered in any such location. The most effective productions of both are those which establish a sense of community and enclosure, even if those depicted are not necessarily those envisaged by the authors. The present production does this superbly and as a result is genuinely moving as well as musically and dramatically convincing.
Admittedly my heart sank when the curtain rose on what seemed like a down-at-heel village hall with no mill in sight and the stage full of tables and chairs. However very quickly it becomes apparent that the hall or function room or whatever it may be is a credible setting for the meeting of the inhabitants of the village, whose Swiss location is made obvious only by a few relatively subtle hints. The crucial scene in the Count’s room is reasonably convincing and the only major change is the climax of the action – the sleeping walking scene over the mill bridge. This is simply turned into the villagers’ concern that Amina should not be woken after her ordeal of losing Elvino as well as providing the directors with an opportunity to underline the parallels between the situations of Amina and the village ghost. This is less harmful than might be expected even if it does not extinguish regrets at losing one of the opera’s most effective and picturesque scenes. The reason that it, and indeed the whole opera, is effective is the tremendous care that has been taken to depict a village community full of individuals – the same requirement of any adequate production of Peter Grimes. What are usually the “minor” roles of Teresa, Alessio and even the Notary become important aspects of the action, whilst Lisa is no mere second soprano but a character of almost equal importance to Amina albeit wholly different in character. Count Rodolfo is clearly an outsider and more wealthy than the villagers and Elvino is naïve and, perhaps unintentionally, callous but no mere cipher. It is this individuality and the interaction between the characters which ensures that the opera works as drama as well as music.
Not that the musical aspects are unimportant or are neglected here. Ana Durlovski as Amina has the necessary flexibility and ability to make the most of Bellini’s long and lovely phrases, and manages somehow to be dramatically involving throughout, despite the unnecessary handicap of a costume and wig that are far from flattering. Luciano Botelho has the necessary high notes and flexibility for Elvino as well as the ability to sweeten his tone when required, and Enzo Capuana is a sympathetic Count Rodolfo. Catriona Smith makes much of the part of Lisa and Helene Schneiderman of Teresa. Gabriele Ferro leads an idiomatic and lively performance, not afraid to relax when required. All in all and despite some very occasional poor ensemble, inevitable in live performance, this is musically a thoroughly distinguished performance.
It is this and the dramatic wholeness with the sense of an ensemble at work that is so appealing about this recording. La Sonnambula can seem to lack dramatic interest or coherence but not here. This excellent disc, well filmed and recorded, even if the voices at times seem somewhat distant, demonstrates that what can appear to be a vehicle for star singers responds even more to being taken seriously as music and as drama.