La sonnambula – Opera in two acts to a libretto by Felice Romani [performed in the Critical Edition (2004) by Alessandro Roccatagliati & Luca Zoppelli]
Amina – Cecilia Bartoli
Elvino – Juan Diego Flórez
Il conte Rodolfo – Ildebrando D’Arcangelo
Lisa – Gemma Bertagnolli
Teresa – Liliana Nikiteanu
Alessio – Peter Kálmán
Un notaro – Javier Camarena
Chorus of Opernhaus Zürich
Orchestra La Scintilla
Alessandro De Marchi
Recorded June & July 2007 and September 2008 in Evangelisch-reformierte Kirchgemeinde, Zürich-Oberstrass
Reviewed by: Melanie Eskenazi
Reviewed: January 2009
CD No: EDITIONS DE L'OISEAU-LYRE 478 1087 (2 CDs)
Duration: 2 hours 14 minutes
This version of Bellini’s “La sonnambula” (on Decca’s L’Oiseau-Lyre label) is replete with ‘firsts’ – the first with a mezzo heroine, first with a period-instrument orchestra … and, one might add, first with the ideal Elvino in the person of Juan Diego Flórez. Given that Flórez and Cecilia Bartoli are the bel canto singers de nos jours, it’s surprising that record companies have taken so long to realise the possibilities of ‘teaming them up’ – they would appear to be at least as natural a combination as, say, Netrebko and Villazón, but sadly this partnership is idyllic only on paper, since Bartoli, for all her customary musicality and commitment, never really reaches Flórez’s level when it comes to sensitivity of interpretation and that sense of vocal ease which is so vital to this music.
Flórez is vastly superior to Monti (with Callas and Sutherland) who, to put it mildly, does not have the young Peruvian tenor’s free-flowing top notes, nor his charismatic phrasing, and is a match for Pavarotti, whose singing (with Sutherland again) is bright-toned but unsubtle. Flórez has it all, and he is especially fine in the duets where his sensitivity and nuanced phrasing are an object lesson in bel canto singing – sadly, however, you are not going to rush out and buy a recording of this work for the Elvino alone, and those duets do not show Bartoli’s Amina at her best.
Bartoli can always be expected to do something different, and this is. Although the role of Amina was created for one mezzo, Giuditta Pasta, and famously sung by another, Maria Malibran, it has become strongly associated with the soprano voice, so to have a recording by a mezzo-soprano takes us back, in a sense, to the original. There is no problem with pitch, of course, and the more opulent voice certainly adds an extra dimension, especially in the recitatives.
Bartoli produces lovely sounds in her big arias, and fans will not be disappointed by her singing of ‘Ah! non credea mirarti’, but compared to Flórez in general there is a lack of nuance in the interpretation. For this role the obvious comparison is with Maria Callas, but where that soprano folds the emotions into the core of her voice, one might say into her very being, Bartoli’s singing verges on the superficial, with much in the way of tiny aspirates and delicate sniffly sobs – appropriate to the emotion, perhaps, but hardly to the musical line.
Ildebrando D’Arcangelo is a solidly credible Rodolfo, his burnished baritone an effective contrast to the sparkling tone of the tenor, and Gemma Bertagnoli’s Lisa is a cut above the usual soubrette-like warbler. The other parts are reliably if unspectacularly taken, and the orchestra plays with plenty of fire for Alessandro De Marchi, who seems to have a tendency to whip things along at a near-frenzied pace, slowing to a trot only when Bartoli is singing.
The recording quality is lucid and clean if a little packaged in feel at times – it hardly ever takes fire so as to give a sense of a genuine performance, sounding rather more like a concert-piece where each singer walks on to perform and then departs.
This recording satisfies many ‘interest groups’. Lovers of authenticity will applaud not only the mezzo Amina but the use of period instruments at a’ = 430 Hz. Bellini-lovers will relish a new recording of what is arguably his greatest work. Flórez fans will lap up another signature part from him. And, of course, Bartoli’s legion of admirers will have to have it.
However, since writing this review, I have found myself fast-forwarding to Emilio’s contributions and avoiding Amina’s – an action that would be reversed were the leading lady Callas or Sutherland.