Buxton International Festival – Bellini’s La sonnambula – with Zivi Dai, Nico Darmanin & Simon Shibambu; directed by Harry Fehr; conducted by Adrian Kelly


La sonnambula – Opera in two Acts to a libretto by Felice Romani [sung in Italian, with English side-titles]

Amina – Ziyi Dai
Elvino – Nico Darmanin
Rodolfo – Simon Shibambu
Lisa – Ellie Neate
Teresa – Ann Taylor
Alessio – Jacob Bettinelli
A lawyer – Tobias Campos Santinaque

Buxton Festival Chorus
Northern Chamber Orchestra
Adrian Kelly

Harry Fehr – Director
Nicky Shaw – Sets
Zahra Mansouri – Costumes
Jake Wiltshire – Lighting

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 8 July, 2023
Venue: Buxton Opera House, Derbyshire, UK

The assumptions of many nineteenth-century operas are often difficult now for contemporary sensibilities to countenance, with their heroines expected to behave impeccably in conforming with male expectations, and maligned or misunderstood if they don’t fall in line.

Harry Fehr’s production of Bellini’s La sonnambula (1831) takes up the theme of sleepwalking not as a mere sensational or wry theatrical device but as an invitation to probe into the characters’ psychology, and understandably shifts the work from a quaint rural, Alpine setting to the era of changing social and moral conventions in the 1960s. As such it illumines the emotional and psychological dynamics between Amina, her fiancé Elvino, and the conservative-minded villagers when she is falsely accused of betraying him with Rodolfo.

It makes for a provocative and charged reinterpretation of the opera – once she comes to her senses after her second spell of sleepwalking and is vindicated – that she doesn’t choose to reinstate her engagement to Elvino. It’s also a brief but stunning piece of choreography when, during her aria in that episode ‘Ah! non credea mirarti’ as Amina and Elvino each declare to themselves that they can’t bear the situation of their apparent loss of each other (for dramatically different reasons), their paths literally cross, but not to link up in reconciliation, adding a further irony to what is sung at the conclusion. Instead, she exits joyfully with Lisa (with whom Elvino had taken up after casting Amina aside) both having seen through his macho bravado in this depiction of him. Having apostrophised his deceased mother in the text, more than he ever does Amina, and therefore more concerned with his and how own family’s honour, this character trait of Elvino’s is astutely picked up on by Fehr. With seemingly just logic, he is left at the end without either the living Amina or Lisa, having been proved unworthy of them.

Also apparently minor, but a telling ironic comment upon the work’s ‘tragicomic’ category, is that the clock over the scene in the first part of Act One, and recurring in Act Two, really does show the passage of time, presiding first over Elvino and Amina’s engagement party, then at that for Elvino and Lisa. It not only underlines Amina’s tragic lament in the aforementioned aria about love only having lasted a day, but here perhaps also sardonically recalls the uproariously ‘mad day’ of The Marriage of Figaro during which its twists and turns and reversals of fortune occur, though with ultimate good humour.

Any such comedy is entirely reserved for the part of Lisa and her ribald interactions with Alessio and Rodolfo. As the action is moved from the countryside and into what seems to be a workers’ canteen in which she works as a server, her status seems apt as her soubrettish role in the opera corresponds to that of the knowing, flirtatious servant in the tradition of opera buffa in the generations immediately preceding Bellini’s work. If the dining room context of the two flanking scenes is redolent of Victoria Wood’s sitcom Dinnerladies in a slightly earlier time, the setting in between faintly recalls Fawlty Towers in which Rodolfo – returning incognito – is put up in a room in Lisa’s house, here like the prissily decorated room of provincial B&Bs and hotels up and down the country, with its prim single bed (pointedly not double) into which the sleepwalking Amina comes, causing the confusion which ensues.

Although Fehr rightly digs down into the human and emotional interaction between the characters sharply in this production, it is a pity that no specific connections are drawn to place within what is, in principle, a precisely evoked, historically realist setting, in the way that Harry Kupfer might have done for instance. The ‘villagers’ here largely appear in blue overalls, and so seem to be workers in some modern industry or factory, but it is not specified exactly what. Nor is it evident what it might mean for Rodolfo to be returning to his family’s ‘castle’ in this context. Such a feudal scenario would seem almost impossible here, but his showy, nouveau riche appearance (with gold chain around his sweater) surely demands some explanation. Taking an angle on these matters would enrich the interpretation with a wider economic or social dimension.

Vocally the cast compellingly turn the conventions of Italian opera to the dictates of the production. Whilst Ziyi Dai retains pristine, agile control in Bellini’s typically long, lyrical melodic lines with requisite colour and charm, as well as carrying cleanly over the chorus and orchestra in her dramatic high notes, she also manages to play Amina with some uncertainty and reticence as she confronts the reality of Elvino’s real nature, investing the performance with dramatic immediacy. By contrast, Nico Darmanin in that role employs a deliberately bold, unyielding singing that would otherwise denote a typical, forceful romantic ardour but here aptly and skilfully conveys the character’s swagger and high self-esteem, alongside his stage gestures – evidently a sort of toxic masculinity. Simon Shibambu’s wide vibrato in the bass role of Rodolfo, if perhaps a touch effusive, nevertheless expresses a certain compassionate dependability. Ellie Neate contrives a fluttering capriciousness as Lisa, as she flirts with Alessio and even more suggestively with Rodolfo in his assigned bedroom, forming an amusingly knowing, earthy contrast with Amina’s unworldly charm.  Good performances from Ann Taylor and Jacob Bettinelli as Teresa and Alessio round out a well-committed cast.

Adrian Kelly conducts the Northern Chamber Orchestra in an essentially soft-hued interpretation of the score, responding exactly to Bellini’s frequently sparse or delicate orchestration, which frequently leaves the voices or chorus, or both together, with the minimum of instrumental support, or none. Fortunately, the soloists and chorus achieve exemplary unanimity of ensemble and intonation to make those transitions seamless. By comparison with those subtler gradations, there is an almost brash jauntiness in the preludes to the two Acts and in the opera’s more extrovert sections, which seems to draw out consciously the irony and hollowness of what is to follow, when the apparent triumph proves illusory. With deft choreography overall, this is a compelling critical engagement of a once canonical work which has somewhat fallen out of the regular repertory, at least in this country. It will also be a revelation to many insofar as it demonstrates that Dai is a soprano to watch, having mainly sung in America and elsewhere in Europe up to now, inciting the hope that she will become more of a fixture in this country too.

Further performances to July 22

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