There is no doubt about it: Vincenzo Bellini composed heavenly music and deserved his enormous popularity both with early 19th-century audiences and with the musical greats of the era who, with the sole exception of Hector Berlioz, thought his compositions were beyond compare.
But, and for me it is a puzzling and bothersome but: who and what was he as a person? His operas are disturbing from a social viewpoint: three of them—Il Pirata (seen in an exquisite concert performance at the Liceu in January 2013), Norma, and La Sonnambula feature tortured heroines with little self-confidence or self-respect. Was he, as some critics claim, a proto-feminist highlighting the appalling maltreatment and helplessness of women? Or was he a twisted personality who got pleasure from these grim situations? It is, truly, a puzzlement. And it makes it difficult to sit back and simply enjoy the music.
La Sonnambula, Amina, is a virtuous young woman, engaged to a well-liked and, as the opera begins, likeable Elvino. Unknown to the townfolk, who all profess their love for her, she has a significant but, at that time little-known condition that is at the crux of the story: she walks in her sleep. The result of a walk very much in the wrong direction, ruins her reputation and brings down on her head the most unattractive and unforgiving anger of her erstwhile admiring neighbors, but more importantly, of her fiancé. He is beside himself and unwilling even to contemplate an explanation or excuse. He rips the engagement ring from her finger and leaves her to endure the disgust of all around her. This is a hero?
It all comes right in the end, at least according to Bellini. Elvino gets an explanation he can believe, pops the ring back on poor Amina’s finger and wedding bells ring. All I could think was that such ugly behavior did not augur well for the marriage. Was she going to be suspected at every turn? Was this man capable of trust? Did Bellini really think he had created a “happily-ever-after” story?
Whatever the answer: the Liceu presented a beautifully produced and exquisitely staged version, set in a hotel/sanitorium in the high Swiss Alps. The Art Deco interior, the elegant period costumes and the quality of both the acting and singing almost made up for the brutishness of the story.
Both casts were excellent, and either would, with one exception, be a great evening out. In the first cast, Patrizia Ciofi as Amina and Juan Diego Florez as Elvino were both vocally and physically well matched. Alas, poor Ciofi was struggling valiantly with a cold. For the most part, her singing was unimpaired; just the occasional gravelly take-off and a couple of hard high notes. Her acting was graceful and convincing. Vocally, Florez was his usual thrilling self. My only criticism really does not reflect on him. I saw him sing the role last year opposite Natalie Dessay. He was much more relaxed and real, and I think it was because Dessay is such a brilliant actress as well as singer, that she stimulates her partners to outperform themselves. (She did the same for him in “Daughter of the Regiment”.)
Also excellent in the first cast were Eleonora Buratto as the scheming Lisa, and Gemma Coma-Alabert, who sang in both casts, as Amina’s adoptive mother. Sabina Puertolas, the second cast's Lisa, was fractionally less natural as an actress, but sang beautifully.
Amina, in the second cast, was sung very well by Annick Massis. She worked hard, and though her acting was less smooth than that of Ciofi, I would be happy to see her again. The major let-down was Celso Albelo, her Elvino. His singing, which should be the most important aspect, was very acceptable in a belting-out-the-bel-canto way. But we have become spoilt by the high level of acting now expected in opera houses, and Albelo just was not up there. We are no longer used to the performance he turned in. As recently as 50 years ago, lead singers stood, passively facing the audience, making minimal gestures that passed as acting, and basically gave concert performances with little relationship to the other members of the cast. That was what I saw the other night, and it no longer works. When he was not emoting to the audience, Albelo was anxiously watching the conductor – something one rarely sees and which separated him from his role. Also, because of his heavy acting, he came across as an unforgivable bully. Whereas Florez projected real agony when he sang desperately that he could not stop loving Amina despite everything, I really didn’t believe Albelo. For that reason only, I would choose the first cast: otherwise they were entirely comparable.
Conductor Daniel Oren coaxed a sensitive performance from both orchestra and cast. His intense involvement and flying body are a trifle distracting, but the music evidently benefits.
“La Sonnambula” is a co-production of the Vienna State Opera and Covent Garden. It is at the Liceu through February 17. The next production, “Tosca,” opens on March 8 with three casts. Sondra Radanovsky, was an outstanding Tosca at the Met recently, Martina Serafin, sang an exquisite Marschallin in the Met’s “Der Rosenkavalier,” and Fiorenza Cedolins, was deeply touching in “La Boheme” last season at the Liceu. If you can’t see all three, shut your eyes and pick one.