Buried Secrets

Jesse Simon
miércoles, 13 de febrero de 2019
Wieler/Morabito: La Sonnambula © Bernd Uhlig, 2019 Wieler/Morabito: La Sonnambula © Bernd Uhlig, 2019
Berlin, sábado, 26 de enero de 2019. Deutsche Oper Berlin. Bellini: La Sonnambula. Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito, directors. Venera Gimadieva (Amina), Jesús León (Elvino), Alexandra Hutton (Lisa), Ante Jerkunica (Rodolfo), Helene Schneiderman (Teresa), Andrew Harris (Alessio), Jörg Schörner (Notary) and Rebecca Shein (Strige). Chorus and Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin. Stephan Zilias, conductor

Conventional wisdom holds that La Sonnambula is a work of light entertainment, a slight plot, improbable characters, a few big numbers and a last minute reveal that allows everything to work out in the end; with a good soprano in the title role, it can at least be charming. Yet no one appears to have informed directors Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito, whose production – which opened recently at the Deutsche Oper after an initial appearance at the Oper Stuttgart in 2012 – offered an unexpectedly dark plunge into the unanswered questions at the fringes of Felice Romani’s libretto. The subtly twisted staging, bolstered by a handful of wonderful performances, allowed this Sonnambula to emerge as entertainment of an altogether higher order.

For the first hour, it appeared that the directors would content themselves with a straightforward, lightly-comedic retelling. The setting had been updated to a large drab room with vaulted ceilings populated by extras from some lesser-known work of Italian neo-realism, but the scenario was essentially unchanged: it opened with Lisa, the brash, embittered landlady, forced to host the wedding reception for her one-time lover Elvino and her rival Amina. The directors kept the opening scenes busy but focussed, drawing incidental comedy from the actions of the lumpen townsfolk, the fussiness of Amina’s adoptive mother Teresa, and the constant disdain of Lisa, whose spiteful glances offered a delightfully cynical running commentary on the alleged wholesomeness of the two lovers. 

It was only after the arrival of Count Rodolfo that things started to get strange, and by the end of the first act there were enough unanswered questions to suggest that the directors were building to something far darker than the initial scenes implied. Who was the woman with the wild hair and torn dress who appeared in the middle of Amina and Elvino’s duet to eat a small plate of food left near the front of the stage? And why were the townspeople intent on killing Rodolfo in his sleep? The angry villagers with their scythes and hatchets and the fairly graphic encounter between Rodolfo and the sleepwalking Amina were handled with such a light touch that it continued to come across as comedy even as the darkness accumulated. It was not until the sleepwalking scene of the second act that one was forced to make a sudden reappraisal of everything that had come before. Yet despite raising so many possibilities, the directors made very little explicit, providing only enough evidence for the audience to connect their own dots. When it was all over, the most obvious question was: who knew Romani’s frothy libretto contained the potential for such complexity?

If the staging was both thought-provoking and satisfyingly perverse, the performances made it a delight to see and hear. Much of the first act was dominated by Alexandra Hutton, whose extraordinary gifts as a comedic actress turned the angry, petty Lisa into the most vital, plausible and strangely likeable force on stage. Although she had only one solo scene in the first act – an effortless, elegantly sung ‘Tutto è gioia’ – she managed to drink, huff and eye-roll her way to the centre of nearly every scene. Her acid glares and petulant movements offered a welcome reprieve from the earnest blandness of the central lovers; when she did have occasion to sing, her bright, crisp tone was woven into passages of considerable verve. Whenever she was not on stage, her absence was felt. 

Ante Jerkunica was equally impressive as the unfailingly suave, possibly evil Count Rodolfo. In addition to his commanding presence and comedic timing he also delivered arguably the evening’s most authentic bel canto performance, combining creamy legato and superb warmth with a sly charisma that rendered him immune even to Ms Hutton’s penchant for scene-stealing. Next to these sparkling figures, the central lovers tended to pale. As Elvino, Jesús León sculpted his lines with reasonable ardour, but seemed unable to convey much intensity of emotion into the auditorium. His opening aria demanded more tonal breadth and the big duet with Amina at the end of the first scene sounded graceful but not especially ecstatic.

Venera Gimadieva brought great technical assurance to Amina. Her ‘Come per me sereno’ was a marvel of melodic control and built to a climax of wonderfully shaped high notes, but there was a strange reluctance in her manner – perhaps from the awkward demands of the staging – that prevented it from lifting off. Nor did the duet with Elvino in the first scene generate many sparks, despite the unfailing elegance of tone and phrasing. The two sleepwalking scenes were considerably stronger: the first introduced moments of welcome ambiguity into her rapt delivery, while the opera’s climactic ‘Ah non credea mirarti’ contained perhaps the evening’s most beautifully crafted vocal moments. 

The choir were superb throughout the evening; the odd collection of townspeople who witness the action unfold came across less as a textural addition to the arias and duets than a single, solidly-defined character. Conductor Stephan Zilias, a very late replacement for Diego Fasolis, offered a controlled, reasonably conservative take on the score. If there were a few moments – notably the ensemble at end of the first act – that seemed to call for a more dynamic, more expressive approach, the steadiness of his reading nonetheless kept the drama firmly on track.

La Sonnambula’s lightness of spirit and undemandingly elegant music have been pleasing audiences for nearly two-centuries, and the Deutsche Oper’s production certainly did not neglect to entertain. The energetic performances and the taut, cohesive approach to storytelling yielded few if any dull moments. Yet by digging so deeply into the story and forcing its previously-unimagined darkness to the surface, the directors created a staging that will appeal equally to those who demand greater dramatic weight from their operas.

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