La Sonnambula is rather flimsy plot-wise, but the music is enough to make one of Bellini's better operas(his masterpiece for me is still Norma). Of the productions available, for those who prefer traditionalism the Anna Moffo is probably the one to go for(but it may not be if you don't like lip-synched productions). The Natalie Dessay and Juan Diego Florez production is not for everybody, some will find it a riot and others will be confused by it, I happen to belong in the former category but can definitely see why people will dislike it. I've heard nothing but good things about the Eglise Gutierrez production, and will be checking it out shortly.
First off I applaud this production for taking on an opera that is hard to stage and prove a challenge for any of the singers involved(especially for the Amina). It doesn't quite work, but it is still a commendable effort. I actually think that the costumes and sets look good and I liked the idea of spring/summer and winter for the two acts, but the production overall is full of ideas that sadly never really seem to add up to much and the period and time setting is rather vague. The stage direction doesn't have much improvement either, in fact I'd say it fares even worse. Much of it is static like with the chorus, who just stand there a lot of the time, too gimmicky like with Annina riding the metallic walkway on a metal Tinker-Toy, or awkward like the idea of Rodolfo "waking her up" from her slumber.
It isn't too bad musically. The music is faultless, no complaints there. The orchestra play the music beautifully with a sense that they know Bellini's style and love it. The chorus are undermined by static stage direction, but I cannot fault them from a singing- point of view, every part is well balanced and it is overall a pleasing sound. Daniel Oren's conducting however is unusually plodding, the production is cut and somehow with the tempos Oren conducts it feels longer than if it wasn't cut. Usually I try and not make a fuss about cuts, which I know many opera fans feel very strongly about, but when they manage to underwrite a character, in this case Lisa, and make the tenor showpiece of the opera as far away from thrilling as you can come, that is a cause of concern in my view.
The performances are good though. I just wish that more was done with Lisa from a production point of view rather than cutting much of her music and making her presence feel random, because Gemma Bertagnolli is wonderful in the role with a warm mezzo voice and a very expressive face. She even manages to convey Lisa's scheming personality, which is a feat considering what was done with the character in the production. Jose Bros has good phrasing and style and is committed enough, charming in the duets with Mei, but he never really blew my socks off and his voice sounded acidic this time around, which I imagine is not a pleasant sound for some.
Eva Mei's role as Amina is a challenging one and she does display solid technique(though there are colouratura voices that are more ideal I think), a charming natural presence, excellent musicality and a voice that is fresher and steadier than some of her other performances. In short I loved her here, definitely one of her better performances on DVD. Sadly I cannot say the same for the Rodolfo of Giacomo Prestia. He is a good actor and is appropriately dignified, but his voice especially at the top is very unsteady and his stylistic phrasing lacks elegance. If you heard Vi Ravviso sung this way, and without the upward slurs, without knowing it was Bellini, you'd think that it was any other composer.
All in all, the production is to be commended for what it tried to do with La Sonnambula, but despite the good performances, especially from Mei, the production just never comes together. Before I forget though, I did think that the opening credits were charmingly innovative. 6/10 Bethany Cox
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