A night of tossing and turning

A few lightweight moments aside, Baltimore Opera does well by `La Sonnambula'

Opera Review

November 14, 2005|By TIM SMITH | TIM SMITH,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Opera fans have not always woken up to the rare melodic beauty and disarming sentiment of Bellini's La Sonnambula.

Although this 1831 work about the trials of a sleepwalking Swiss maiden held the stage throughout the 19th century, it has since gone through alternating periods of neglect and appreciation.

La Sonnambula may have a harder time than ever getting the public's attention. Does pure charm stand much of a chance in our cynical, superficial age?

The Baltimore Opera Company's first-ever staging of the piece delivers an affirmative reply.

Not that this venture, imported from Italy, is always in sync with the opera's subtle qualities.

There are moments when the Freudian-laced concept of director Federico Tiezzi and set designer Pier Paolo Bisleri suggests little faith in what Bellini created, moments filled with silly stuff that passes for contemporary opera production today.

Placed in an Edwardian time frame, La Sonnambula's original rustic Alpine setting gives way to the front lawn of an antiseptic country manor, where well-dressed picnickers spread blankets with exaggerated flourishes. Later, an icy, rocky terrain pops up.

Instead of a quaint inn, where a pivotal business involving the nocturnal wanderer is to take place, the scenic component is reduced to a big red sofa and a few giant yellow umbrellas. Can you spell "Euro-trash," boys and girls?

And, although the idea of lowering an industrial-looking bridge from the fly space for the climactic sleepwalking scene is theoretically telling, the noise it makes, during some of Bellini's most sublime music, is almost criminal.

That said, there's a cool look to much of this staging, which creates its own kind of logic through the static sets and often heavily stylized, tautly choreographed motions of the characters. Whether any of it is really useful or deeply illuminating can be debated.

The musical side, likewise, invites an on-the-one-hand, on-the-other reaction.

During Saturday's opening night performance at the Lyric Opera House, Valeria Esposito created an affecting portrayal of Amina, whose sleepwalking leads others to reach unfortunate conclusions. She shaped melodic lines sensitively, especially in her long-breathed, eloquent account of Ah, non credea.

The soprano also tackled the coloratura of Ah, non giunge calmly and added plentiful embellishments to it, including some fun, if inelegant, staccato flurries that evoked the Queen of the Night in Mozart's The Magic Flute.

Overall, though, the voice sounded a couple sizes too small, a couple shades too pale to make the most of the role. And, as in her 2002 Lucia for the company, Esposito approached many high, soft notes with a peculiar, musically jolting gearshift.

Gregory Kunde, as Amina's would-be betrothed Elvino, made every word count and spun out phrases with remarkable nuance. He limned the emotional pain of Tutto e sciolto wonderfully and was a model of elegance in the Son geloso duet.

So it must seem churlish to wish that, like Esposito, the tenor could have summoned a tone with more color, body and warmth.

As Rodolfo, the local nobleman who knows somnambulism when he sees it, Elia Todisco offered a small, smooth baritone and an appreciation for the Bellini style. Penny Shumate, as innkeeper Lisa, sang with welcome fire, but tended to turn strident.

Angela Horn's healthy, theater-filling mezzo vividly fleshed out the role of Teresa, Amina's adoptive mother. Brendan Cooke proved efficient as Lisa's stymied suitor, Alessio.

The chorus sounded unusually sturdy and cohesive but could have paid more attention to finer points of dynamics and articulation in their ghost story-telling solo and interjections during Amina's Sovra il sen.

The orchestra played firmly for Steven White, whose assured conducting revealed obvious affection for Bellini's score. Maybe too much affection. His tendency to draw out lovely tunes veered toward lethargy and left less room for ebb and flow within a tempo.

Speaking of flow, the production divides the opera into three acts, instead of the original two, harming the overall pace.

Still, the poetic strengths of La Sonnambula worked their magic Saturday, easily shining through any oddities of staging or limitations of musical execution.

The only truly sour notes came from the audience, tittering through the creakier plot elements in this exquisite opera.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

La Sonnambula repeats at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, 8:15 p.m. Friday and 3 p.m. Sunday at the Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave. For tickets, call 410-727-6000.

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