La Sonnambula

La Sonnambula is an opera in search of a great video. There's a B&W RAI film from the 1950's with a very young, pre-nosejob Anna Moffo that's vocally excellent, but has all the artificiality and poor picture/sound quality you'd expect from an RAI film of that era. And from then on it's slim pickings. The Met released a video of Dessay and Florez in the critically panned Mary Zimmerman production that's hampered not just by the silly production, but by Dessay's precarious vocal estate around the time of filming. Such a shame that Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland, and Renata Scotto never filmed their Aminas (although there are plenty of excellent live and studio recordings of their renditions).

This new release on Dynamic is, all things considered, maybe the best La Sonnambula video on the market. That's not really saying much, granted, but still. The sound and picture quality is fine, the singers range from very good to acceptable, and the production is very pretty.

This performance was recorded at the Teatro Lirico in 2008. I have no idea where this theater is, a quick Google search tells me it's located in Cagliari, Italy, and seats 1,628 people. In other words, a small regional theater that's probably much more appropriate for Bellini's opera than the "major" opera theaters of the world. The staging is visually very pretty. It seems to be set at a Victorian picnic, with everyone seated on some grassy hills, all dressed in very fancy 19th century frocks that are kind of inappropriate for a simple Tyrolean village. At times the chorus stops for poses and look as if they jumped out of a painting. The back cover of the DVD says the production was "inspired" by Visconti's famous 1955 production for La Scala. I don't know.

Eglise Gutierrez is the Amina and she has a dusky, warm lyric soprano that's very pleasant on the ears. It's a joy to hear a beautiful voice sing such beautiful music. She looks good too -- pretty in a wholesome, healthy, pink-cheeked way. Weaknesses: she also unfortunately has a thin, penny-whistle upper register that sounds completely disembodied from the rest of her voice. Another weakness with Gutierrez that her Amina is somewhat blank dramatically; she seems to be singing a concert opera rather than living a role. Gutierrez is stronger in the solo portions of the role -- her voice, dusky and soft-grained, doesn't really project in the ensembles. For a comparison, you can hear old recordings of Callas and Scotto and how their sharper, edgier timbres absolutely cut through the ensemble to the point where Amina's vocal line was practically all you heard. But her vocal displays are very impressive, and this is definitely a voice to watch.

Here's her "Ah non credea mirarti" and "Ah non giunge":

The Elvino of this disc is the main weakness -- Antonino Siragusa has a pinched, hard, nasal tenor voice. It has no sweetness, no tenderness. He also has a tendency to sing a shade under the pitch. The absolutely beautiful duets between Amina and Elvino in Act One ("Prendi, l'aneli ti dono" and "Son geloso") are marred by what I can only call Siragusa's whiny, unpleasant sound.

Here's the famous Act One finale, where you can hear both Gutierrez's tendency to disappear in ensemble and Siragusa's unpleasant timbre:

Simone Alaimo is the Count Rodolfo -- not much to say about him other than he sounds pretty good for his age. Maurizio Benini's conducting is very singer-centered, meaning he's completely happy to stop the music completely to accommodate the singers. This sometimes gives the performance a rather shapeless feel, especially in the choruses and ensembles.

La Sonnambula is one of my favorite operas and I feel it often gets a bad rap, from singers, directors, even operaphiles. They deride the weak, old-fashioned storyline. But I firmly believe the music is some of the most beautiful ever written for the human voice, and so a new video is always a curiosity for me. This release on Dynamic gets a tentative thumbs-up.


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