La Sonnambula, London, March 2002
'Autolycus', Financial Times (Weekend), 23 March 2002
Maria Callas built her reputation around her coloratura, most notably in
the bel canto operas of Bellini, who demanded fireworks from his
virtuoso singers to hide his apologies forplots. This week at Covent
Garden another Greek soprano, Elena Kelessidi, sleep walked her way to
stardom as Amina, the drowsy heroine in La Sonnambula.
Kelessidi seems to have it all - young and pretty, skittish, and sweet
in the highest of high notes. Her jealous fiance, Elvino, is the
strongly fancied Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Florez, and sometimes his
sulks out-ran the plot and reflected a competitive spirit on stage, a
little of "I can go higher than you - and for longer", as indeed he
Throw in Alastair Miles, as a moustache twirling count, and Inger Dam-
Jensen as a saucy, scene stealing rival and you have the ingredients for
another Covent Garden smash. As usual it was the director who caught the
critical backlash. Marco Arturo Marelli has fast-forwarded the action
from a whimsical Swiss village to the kind of grand art deco hotel in
which Rogers and Astaire had their flirty misunderstandings.
In fact the whole production has the feel of a sexy operetta. While the
ENO's provocative new productions at the nearby Coliseum seek a new
audience for opera yet only succeed in losing the old one, Covent Garden
seems to be on a winning streak.
La sonnambula, Royal Opera House London
Edward Seckerson, The Independent, 20 March 2002
Amina, Bellini's eponymous sleep-walker, takes refuge in dreams. Like so
many early-19th-century operatic heroines, she inhabits that place
somewhere between waking and sleeping, sanity and madness, that is their
exclusive domain. Marco Arturo Marelli - director and designer of the
Royal Opera's new staging - has the rest of the company join her. We are
in a kind of limbo atop Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain. A hotel, a
sanatorium, a rest home, an asylum - take your pick. Only you can't tell
the staff from the guests - or should that be inmates? And there's an
ice storm brewing.
Bel canto opera is always in need of a little theatrical lift. The
plots - basic to a fault - are secondary to the psychology, the emotion
contained in fanciful vocal embellishment that can take us anywhere the
composer chooses, invariably deep into the subconscious of the isolated
heroine. Mad scenes, sleepwalking scenes - that's generally the chosen
route. We get to eavesdrop.
So what of this strange "hotel" community where our hero Elvino would
appear to be a composer of sorts (perhaps even Bellini himself), and
every woman is dressed to serve (the tell-tale maid's uniform)? For the
purposes of La Sonnambula, the chosen one, Amina (whose mother, by the
way, is plainly the matron or supervising housekeeper) gets to swap the
frilly apron for the wedding gown. This familiar ritual probably happens
at least once a month - whenever maestro Elvino has completed another
There is much wit and irony in Marelli's fluid and stylish staging.
After Amina has sleepwalked into Count Rodolfo's bed, the ice storm
brewing at the close of Act I has deposited a fairly substantial
snowdrift on stage by the start of Act II. Elvino's piano is buried and
so, it would seem, is his love for Amina. Such metaphors tease and
provoke, but also provide a stronger dramatic framework for Bellini's
extravagant vocal flights. Marelli's set is certainly extravagant - a
sweeping "grand hotel" day-room with floor-to-ceiling windows looking
out on to picturesque mountain vistas. A smaller curtained stage inside
the room presents its own painted mountain vista. But which is the
Wonderful set, then, and some pretty wonderful singing. The hot young
tenor of the moment - Juan Diego Florez - is Elvino, elegant of voice and
stature, truly a tenore di grazia, phrases meaningfully turned and
nuanced, wonderful control and support, and absolute security at the
top, which dazzles like a piccolo trumpet. Alastair Miles's Count
Rodolfo is, by contrast, a mellifluous trombone. Inger Dam-Jensen, as
Lisa, Elvino's former lover, is a coquettish and dangerous presence
sparkling most brightly when it looks as if she might get to wear the
wedding dress after all. But this is Amina's show - her dream, her
nightmare, her happy ending - and Elena Kelessidi belongs centre-stage.
The coloratura is always at the service of a deeper expression, always
beautifully integrated into the longer line. The poise of her duets with
Florez, both voices dovetailing exquisitely into each other, was one
special feature of the evening. The other was the limpidity of her final
scene, where Bellini strips away all the embellishment to lend a
touching purity to this "last prayer from a dying heart", the romance of
solo horn giving way to lachrymose solo cello. A composerly touch.
But what is La Sonnambula but a bel canto opera, and what is Amina but a
prima donna? As if to both acknowledge the question and pay tribute to
the genre, Marelli has the curtains slowly - and seemingly prematurely -
descend on the final scene; he even brings up the house lights. But
then, in a quick change from virginal white to knowing crimson, Amina
comes through the curtain, cues the conductor (the excellent and stylish
Maurizio Benini), and launches into her showy final cabaletta. Make no
mistake, Marelli seems to be saying, in bel canto the prima donna rules.
Kelessidi certainly did.
Two principals are instruments of delight
Andrew Clark, The Financial Times 19 March 2002
Londoners will have to cast their minds back many a long year to recall singing anything like as beautiful as Saturday's performance of La sonnambula at Covent Garden. Maybe it was not the last word in bel canto, but it was as beautiful as we can hope for today. The old-fashioned virtues re-asserted themselves: purity of line, poetry of song. It didn't really matter that the production tried to marry Bellini with modern psychoanalysis. The music was never less than centre-stage.
The two instruments of this delight were Elena Kelessidi's Amina and Juan Diego Florez's Elvino. It's hard to imagine a more perfect match - both young, good-looking and in their vocal prime. If Florez on this occasion commanded greater attention, it's only because he is the new tenor phenomenon. Here is a dream come true: a tenore di grazia who is musical, has a sweet, ringing tone, and holds the stage with aristocratic assurance. The notes are struck cleanly and confidently, and strung together on the smoothest legato. There's no yelping, no bad-mannered emoting, no unwanted hogging of the limelight.
Time stops when Florez sings - he's really that good. He may not communicate the pathos that the greatest exponents of this repertory have commanded; and he has yet to develop a variety of gesture. Nevertheless, he helps us understand why the Bellini- Donizetti-Rossini repertory is written the way it is - and reminds us that opera is, first and foremost, about the art of singing.
Thanks to her Violetta and Giulietta, Kelessidi is already a cherished quantity in London. La sonnambula again finds her capturing the subtlest elegances of nuance and phrasing, so that the coloratura is not merely an outward show of technique; it is always subordinated to a sense of inner feeling. That is Kelessidi's gift: the ability to create dramatic personality by modulating the voice expressively. Her Amina - angelic in the naive sense - represents a step forward because for the first time she is partnered by someone who is her equal. Lucia di Lammermoor must be the next step.
Unfortunately, Kelessidi's triumph is muted by Marco Arturo Marelli's staging, which does little justice to her or Amina, the Swiss village girl whose sleepwalking gives the opera its title. Marelli sets the tale in the ballroom of an early 20th-century Alpine hotel, a hermetically sealed world redolent of Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain. Elvino is a visiting composer (aka Bellini) in mourning for his mama, Amina the kitchen-maid who inspires a rekindling of his anima (soul) - the source of his creativity. From start to finish, she is little more than a figment of Elvino's imagination, so much so that she emerges after the second sleepwalking scene as a prima donna, singing her final aria in front of the stage-curtain.
All this was specifically designed for consumption in Vienna, the city of Freud, where the production was first shown earlier this season. What I object to is the way it gives La sonnambula a knowing quality at odds with Bellini's simple, sentimental melodramma. By failing to show Amina in a compromising position - she is found asleep not in the Count's bedroom, but on the floor of the all-purpose ballroom - Marelli removes the motivation for Elvino's misunderstandings. And by submerging the ballroom in a snowdrift for the Act Two sleepwalking, thereby alluding to the world of dreams, he creates an effect more comical than enlightening. To Marelli's credit, none of this actually gets in the way of the music.
In most Bellini performances, everything focuses on the leading roles, leaving the rest to fend for themselves. Not so here: the Royal Opera comes up trumps with Inger Dam-Jensen, who turns Lisa into a bar-lady worthy of EastEnders.Abrilliant foil to Kelessidi, she acts everyone else off the stage and sparkles in her own solos. Alastair Miles, crisp of tone and suave of manner, is equally well cast as the Count. The frisky accompaniments to his Act Two aria find the orchestra at its peak, guided with faultless sensitivity by Maurizio Benini.
Better left to slumber
Rupert Christiansen, The Telegraph, 18 March 2002
Sleepwalking may have been a matter of major scientific concern in the
1830s when Bellini wrote La Sonnambula, but nowadays it seems a quaint,
even comical phenomenon. Should one leave the libretto's slim plot-line
(the Swiss farmer Elvino is shocked when his betrothed Amina is
discovered in the bedroom of another man - a misunderstanding resolved
when Amina is revealed to be a somnambulist) in the realms of Pollock's
toy theatre, or attempt to construct something psychologically credible
Marco Arturo Marelli's new production for the Royal Opera takes the
latter course. It updates to an Alpine spa hotel in the Fifties, where
Amina works as a waitress. The conceit is amusing and convincing through
Act I, but gets bogged down in pretentious and inappropriate symbolism
in Act II, when the hotel foyer is invaded by an avalanche and Amina is
made to sleepwalk over a smashed-up grand piano.
Marelli's worst idea comes last, as he transforms Amina into a Rita
Hayworth siren for the final celebratory cabaletta, "Ah non giunge!".
It's a cheap trick, and although Elena Kelissidi has the bella figura to
pull it off, she made a total mess of Bellini's notes and brought the
curtain down on a sad anti-climax.
Kelissidi is a problem case - there's such expressive charm and warmth
in her singing and personality, but she's hampered by an unreliable
technique and pinched top register. Her opening aria "Come per me
sereno" and the subsequent duets with Elvino were quite lovely in their
rounded contours and gentle colours, but she tired quickly and the
bravura aspects of the role were erratically executed.
Perhaps it didn't help that her Elvino was a paragon. Once you become
accustomed to the brownish timbre of Juan Diego Florez's voice, there is
no faulting this amazing tenor - this is a voice that can go anywhere
and do anything, with a fine command of melting legato and a handsome
Maurizio Benini conducted a spry, dainty and sympathetic account of this
fragile but alluring score, and the excellent supporting cast was
distinguished by Inger Dam-Jensen as Amina's rival Lisa. Kelissidi
should have a word with Dam-Jensen: she could learn a thing or two from
her cleanly brilliant and focused vocal style.
Diva with no fireworks
Tom Sutcliffe, The Evening Standard, 18 March 2002
The set is simply stunning - a silvery Art Deco dining hall with a stage
at the back and above it an upper level walkway leading to numbered
hotel rooms, plus a view of spectacular snow-clad mountain peaks seen
through a vast two-storey window. Marco Arturo Marelli has transposed
Bellini's peasant melodrama, The Sleepwalker, to a modern Alpine health
hotel. Which is all very witty and charming, even if it destroys the
premise of the story: that Amina's innocent somnambulism, which has led
her into a compromising situation asleep in the Count's room underneath
his voluminous fur coat, is a condition not understood by the naive
inhabitants of her remote village.
However, this musically sublime opera is not about sets and knowing
comedy. It's about singing and the expression of genuine emotions. When
Amina enters, giving voice in her sleep, while walking along the eaves
of her home and in dire danger of falling to her death, the
stratospheric pitch and demanding coloratura express her physical (and
social) situation in remarkable vocal terms. But Marelli's staging has
her teetering over a piano lid on top of snow that's drifted indoors.
Amina is one of the greatest bel canto roles ever, written for Giuditta
Pasta, claimed by divas like Jenny Lind, Joan Sutherland, and Amelita
Galli-Curci. Elena Kelessidi, here, is a sweet, charming performer and
does her best. But she just doesn't possess the equipment, the range of
colour, the sense of phrasing and rhythm, the trills and separated
notes. Her final fireworks aria was way adrift. And you notice her
severe shortcomings because her Elvino, the young Peruvian tenor star
Juan Diego Flórez, is so assured and stylish, able to make every word
tell, and so hungry to thrill his audience with incredibly high top
notes and beautifully placed phrases.
Alastair Miles, as the Count, could do with a lot more Latin
seductiveness, though he sounds deliciously mellifluous. Inger
Dam-Jensen makes much of the frustrating role of Lisa, Elvino's old
flame. Maurizio Benini conducts neatly enough, though without any
special flair. But, lacking an accomplished soprano star, the effect of
the piece is diminished.
Andrew Clements, The Guardian, 18 March 2002
The rest of the music world celebrated Bellini's bicentenary last
November, but the Royal Opera is marking the anniversary now, with a new
production of the first great product of his maturity, La Sonnambula.
New, in this case, means the British premiere of a production first seen
last year at the Vienna State Opera, with a cast that also included the
tenor Juan Diego Florez, who is one of the main attractions here.
Florez, in the role of Elvino, the sleepwalker's fiancée, certainly does
not disappoint - his singing is wonderfully easy and lithely elegant,
perfectly slotted into the bel canto style - and neither does the rest
of the cast, under the light touch of the conductor Maurizio Benini. But
all of their efforts are subjugated to a production of ineffable
pretentiousness from Marco Arturo Marelli, who has also designed and lit
the show; his wife Dagmar Niefind-Marelli supplied the costumes.
The original setting of La Sonnambula is a Swiss village in which Elvino
is a local landowner and the sleepwalking Amina an orphan fostered by
the local mill owner, Teresa. In Marelli's "psychological approach", the
Swiss location is retained, but everything now takes place in a Magic
Mountain style sanatorium, where Elvino, transmuted into a composer, has
been an inmate since the traumatic death of his mother, and where Amina
is employed. The director explains his thinking in a nine-page article
in the programme, and it is a masterpiece of psychobabble. Because
Amina's name is an anagram of "anima", for instance, that inevitably
suggests a Jungian angle on the opera; of course it does, and we can
only be grateful that the presence of an Elvino didn't suggest to
Marelli that he set the whole thing in a journalists' wine bar.
The change of location has certainly promoted a sumptuous-looking set,
like a gigantic hotel foyer with an ever-changing mountainscape seen
through the huge rear windows, peopled by patients in wheelchairs and
attentive nurses. In the second act a huge snowdrift has burst through
the windows, demolishing a grand piano in the process. But none of this
illuminates Bellini's delicate score. On the contrary it seems intended
to send the whole thing up, and characterisations within this glossy
package are almost nonexistent. Only the Count (an authoritative
performance by Alastair Miles) and Inger Dam-Jensen's flighty Lisa, who
hopes Elvino will forsake Amina for her, emerge in three dimensions. As
Amina herself, Elena Kelessidi certainly gets around the role and
delivers her big numbers with great panache, but like everyone else she
is hamstrung by the absurd production.