It is a real sign of the times when no less than 4 Bellini operas (Beatrice di Tenda, Norma, I puritani and La sonnambula) are now available to commercial home video. Though the film version of Sonnambula has bounced around for awhile on pirate and semi-commercial labels, a lip-synched film hardly counts as a legit live performance.
The performance under review here hardly does justice to the opera.
To begin with, the score is brutally massacred. We are back to the bad old times here: MOST of all second verses are lopped off, with internal trims everywhere ("Ah! non giunge is the only non-casualty). "Sovra il sen la man mi posa" is guillotined, Lisa's section act aria is gone, as is the quartet that follows. This performance should be called "Sonnambula Snippets." I don't know if these cuts are at the behest of the producers or the conductor, but they are shameful, inexcusable in light of today's awareness of proper performance practices.
Daniel Oren, the conductor, nevertheless chooses slow tempos that make the opera seem longer, even with the cuts.
The direction is awkward, foolish. People seem randomly placed, with no sense of stage conception. The chorus stand hither and thither like sonnambulant statues, placed decoratively, but statically around the sets and principals. And they look bored to the gills.
The production looks to me like it's set in the early part of the 20th century, about 1915 or 1920. The costumes, though inappropriate to the real story's time, are elegantly snazzy, expensive and eye-catching. The sets are funky, and not in a good way. For the first part of act one, there's a raked stage with storybook fairy-tale grass and boxy house in background. It opens with the pantomime figure of Amina going to a red chair in the center of the stage; she curls up in it and the chair lowers down into the stage. Weird. Then it shows the real Amina (ostensibly) in the window, asleep, spotlighted, as the prelude sounds. Second part of first act, same set, only there's a wheat field in front of the raked stage, where Amina is found sleeping and later begins her wet-dream sonnambufits. The Count is lying on a brilliant neon red sofa with three orange beach umbrellas all encircled around him, upon which Amina somehow winds up and is subsequently discovered. Second act opens up to a wintry tableau, snowy ground with a dark emerald green tinted background, the chorus now all in black. Later on, for Amina's walk across the "bridge," she does so on this metal Tinker-Toy thing which lowers down onto the stage, one end tilting and lurching down to allow Amina back to earth. In the recitative before "Ah! non giunge," while an "indoor" backdrop with chandelier drops down, that red chair pops back up from the middle of the snow covered stage, which Amina gets into and falls back asleep: Rodolfo passes his hand across her, like a sorcerer, and "wakes" her up. Huh? How hard do I gotta think about this? Do I HAVE to?
The concept and bizarro colors are intriguing in a distractedly distractable way, but it was not part of the solution, so therefore, it was a BIG part of the dismal problem. It just didn't work. Sonnambula is one of those operas where time and place are so resolutely, irrevocably wedded to the music and themes that it is nearly impossible to depart from this stubbornly set-in-stone countenance. The innocence and rustic aspects of the setting do not update well. The story, though laden with deeply expressed emotions, is spectacularly simple and straightforward. It doesn't lend itself well to "conceptualization." This production screamed out the meaning of "pointless, lame attempt." Fatally gimmicky, it forces the viewer to look for and discover a nameless (so named because it doesn't exist) element that is not there to begin with. These hip, totally rad, cool, groovy, and mod intrusions is a sure sign of the Designated Design Team's reluctance to trust the opera to stand on its own. In doing so, they distracted the audience from the piece's built-in depth, instead of enhancing it. The depth is IN the music, alleged, self-appointed opera directors!
What this piece needs is quartet of true bel canto essayists to carry the music and text to its fullest. Sonnambula is a beautiful, endearing opera, one that needs exceptional artists to convey its wondrous charms. I'm not sure the ability to do this exists in our jaded mindsets of today.
Credit must be given, however, to the singers in this performance for succeeding to a good degree, in their singing and characterization.
Giacomo Prestia, the Rodolfo, looks and acts the part of the dignified gentleman; but he's confoundingly made out to be a kind of playboy later on. Prestia has a pleasing voice, but unfortunately, most of his sustained notes are quite juddery, unsteady and loose. He ignores the all-important upward slurs in "Vi ravviso," which removes the elegance it should have. These slurs are so often casually ignored, and they're so important, so crucial to Bellinian expressiveness, that anyone who leaves them out is surely clueless to the style of the music.
José Bros turns in a committed performance of Elvino. He certainly has the awareness and eloquence of a Bellinian line; "Prendi, l'anel to dono" in particular is sweetly, meltingly sung. The highest notes are a bit hard in tone, and slightly unsteady, but Bros is a good actor (ardor and wounded pride are wonderfully expressed), a fine, sensitive artist, and he and Mei really do share a noticeable collegial rapport - that is, when they're given a chance to do so. Their duets together are charming, and they complement each other well.
Gemma Bertagnoli's scheming Lisa is properly tarty, and she has a fresh, clear tone: but she has so much music cut that she's barely part of the action...and when she is, she seems just randomly stuck in there.
Eva Mei, like Bros, is a sterling artist, and really gives her all as Amina. Though she's been around as a soubrette type of coloratura for a few years now, she first really impressed me with her well-sung and daring performance of Thais in Venice, which is now on DVD.
Mei - here looking uncannily like a young Suzanne Pleshette - manages to convey Amina's innocence, charm and sweetness. Her facial expressions are delightful, both in joy and sorrow (her indications and utterances of heartbreak are genuinely moving): she is an intelligent, natural, eloquent actress. Mei's delicate voice, though a bit on the light side, is pure and fresh as spring water - clear, sweet-toned, with an Italianate ping that's bracing to the ears. The final scene is poignantly sung, done with the requisite 'tear' in the voice. The "Ah, non credea," though slender in tone, is beautiful - long lined, expressive, nice shadings and taperings of phrase endings (and Bros's interjections match her stylings gracefully). The "Ah! non giunge!" here DOES benefit from a slower tempo: it sounds more genteel, sweeter, less hectic. I rather think this approach suits Amina's country girl persona.
A bit worrisome though, are many of Mei's sustained upper tones, which waver precipitously. And I'm not sure she is cut out for the bel canto fach. There are no trills, and some of her passagework is blurred and unfinished. Intervals to upper tones are somewhat laborious, not nimble and springy. The several high notes she incorporates are not easy for her, and they are a bit narrow and piercing (the E flat that comes in after the chorus interval between verses of "Ah! non giunge!" sounds a hair short of its pitch value). I think Mei is like a lot of supposed "coloratura" sopranos: youth gives them freshness and reasonable agility, but as soon as they get in their 40s, lyric-soubrette roles eventually become their true metier (think Battle, Streich).
I remain impressed with Mei, ultimately. As I said earlier, her Thais really commanded my respect, and this Amina no less so. It is because of her and Bros that I will hang onto this release. It's still to my chagrin that this opera is represented on DVD by this ultra-dumb production and hacked up score.