The Florida Grand Opera presented a revival of Bellini’s “La Sonnambula”, respectfully staged – as it was in 2007 – by Renata Scotto, herself one of the greatest protagonists of the title role in the 1960s and 1970s.
The revival provided the opportunity to hear two young American artists, Georgia’s Rachele Gilmore as Amina and New York’s Michele Angelini as Elvino, in stunning performances that not only showed mastery of the Bellinian vocal style, but stratospheric upper ranges for both artists. Angelini astonished the audience with a high E flat, and Gilmore with a F above high C.
[Below: Elvino (Michele Angelini, left) and Amina (Rachele Gilmore, right) celebrate their marriage betrothal; edited image, based on a Gaston de Cardenas photograph, courtesy of the Florida Grand Opera.]
Gilmore and Angelini were supported by a uniformly excellent group of principal artists, led by the Count Rodolfo of California basso Tom Corbeil and the Lisa of South Korean soprano Hye Jung Lee. In the smaller roles Catherine Cook and Adam Lau were welcome as, respectively, Teresa and Alessio
“Sonnambula” has the reputation of having a lightweight plot, that contains an inherent improbability – a young girl about to be wed, unbeknownst to herself and the population of a small village is a sleepwalker, and finds herself asleep in the room of a visiting stranger.
[Below: Amina (Rachel Gilmore) sleepwalks into the bedroom of a stranger; edited image, based on a Gaston de Cardenas photograph, courtesy of the Florida Grand Opera.]
Unable to explain how she came to be in a stranger’s bedroom, her fiancé is certain of her infidelity and calls off the wedding. When all the villagers and her fiancé learn about somnambulism and see her sleepwalking in a dangerous situation, all come to understand the situation and the wedding finally takes place.
Lest one assume that audiences of the year 1830 were more accepting of the plot than they think modern day audiences might be, consider the counsel of the premiere’s reviewer for Milan’s L’Eco (as translated in Herbert Weinstock’s invaluable biography Vincenzo Bellini: His Life and His Operas): “acceptance of Amina’s somnambulism as credible might be difficult, but that once it had been accepted, the drama cohered and produced its effect”.
The Scotto Staging
The plot is sentimental, and, as staged by Scotto, no one, not even Lisa, Amina’s rival for Elvino’s hand, is malevolently motivated (although Lisa is willing to take advantage of what she sees is Amina’s fall from grace).
Whereas another stage director might have attempted to engage the audience in concepts that go far beyond what the dramatic material that Bellini and his brilliant librettist Felice Romani provided, Scotto embraced the staging of this pastoral romance intelligently, providing an absorbing story, that suited perfectly the waves of Bellini’s melodies that infuse the score.
[Below: Stage director Renata Scotto; resized image of a production photograph, courtesy of the Florida Grand Opera.]
With sets and costumes designed by Carlo Diappi, this co-production of Miami’s Florida Grand Opera and Detroit’s Michigan Opera Theater, nicely complemented the purpose for which Bellini intended the audience to assemble, to hear great voices display their beauty and virtuosity while enacting a story.
Playing the opera straight did not prevent Scotto from some innovations in its staging. Bellini had set the opera by a mill owned by the mother of Amina, the sleepwalker, but the FGO production replaces the mill with a large gnarled tree. Each of the opera’s four scenes contains one or several of this species of tree. Thus, the traditional denouement of Amina sleepwalking past a turning mill-wheel disappears.
Yet, in the spirit of the mid-19th century innovation of having the final sleepwalk take place on what seems to be a dangerously rickety bridge, Scotto’s Amina finds herself high in the tree in what, even to a contemporary audience, might seem a worrisome assignment for the prima donna.
[Below: the villagers observe Amina (Rachele Gilmore, above) sleepwalking; edited image, based on a Gaston de Cordova photograph, courtesy of the Florida Grand Opera.]
The effectiveness of Scotto’s concept is most vivid in the culmination of the sleepwalking scene, in which Count Rodolfo persuades Elvino to revive her from her disordered sleep by restoring to her finger the engagement ring he took from her. As she sings her great penultimate aria Ah, non credea mirarti she is in the spotlight on the stage’s apron. All the rest of the cast have left the stage, except for Elvino, Rodolfo and Teresa, who are behind her in darkness.
Then as the aria’s cabaletta (Ah! non giunge uman pensiero) begins, we realize that the point of the restaging is the celebration of the marriage, joyously consummated after the regrettable delay caused by this misunderstanding. She disappears momentarily to emerge in a wedding dress, while townsmen help Elvino into his formal clothes. As the opera ends in a blaze of coloratura virtuosity, confetti in abundance drops from the opera house ceiling.
[Below: Amina (Rachele Gilmore, center left) and Elvino (Michele Angelini, center right), have dressed for the celebration of their wedding; edited image, based on a Gaston de Cordova photograph, courtesy of the Florida Grand Opera.]
Rachele Gilmore’s Amina
Rachele Gilmore was a brilliant Amina, as quintessential a coloratura role as the title role of Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor”. Virtually all of the great coloratura sopranos of the early and mid-19th century and since the Bellini revival of the mid-20th century have assayed it.
Gilmore proved she is ready to assume the mantle of coloratura soprano of the first rank. Her stratospheric range above high C should enhance her celebrity and stardom.
Michele Angelini’s Elvino
Even rarer than the coloratura soprano is a stylish Bellinian tenor. Angelini possesses a beautifully lyrical voice, easily large enough to fill the great American halls, with a tenor trill and his own extraordinary range above the tenor high C.
[Below: Michele Angelini as Elvino; edited image, based on a Gaston de Cordova photograph, courtesy of the Florida Grand Opera.]
Tom Corbeil’s Rodolfo
I had seen Tom Corbeil previously at the Santa Fe Opera singing smaller roles of Gluck and Verdi and he has appeared in important basso roles with several American companies, as well as touring in musical theater (as Lurch in “The Addams Family”).
However, Rodolfo in Miami is arguably his most important operatic assignment to date, with Bellini’s music to caress his voice of natural beauty. He dispatched the role’s basso coloratura confidently.
[Below: Tom Corbeil as the Count Rodolfo; edited image, based on a Gaston de Cordova photograph, courtesy of the Florida Grand Opera.]
It’s not a wholly sympathetic role. Both Romani’s libretto and Scotto’s direction emphasize the character’s much too personal praise of the beauty of a bride whom he has just met.
Of course, Elvino should be steaming. (I’ve long thought that Elvino could have been a sidekick of Masetto, who had watched Don Giovanni making his moves on Masetto’s bride Zerlina and who wished not to find himself the intended cuckold of a nobleman.) However, Rodolfo does offset his forwardness with abundant professions of Amina’s innocence, that, in time, help restore her reputation.
Hye Jung Lee’s Lisa
The role of Lisa calls for an accomplished coloratura soprano (she has an aria in which she must display her vocal virtuosity), who has a basically unsympathetic role as the sneaky rival of the opera’s heroine.
The role was entrusted to the impressive young South Korean soprano, Hye Jung Lee, whose portentous professional debut as Madame Mao I was fortunate to attend [See 25 Years Old, “Nixon in China” Arrives at San Francisco Opera – June 8, 2012.]
[Below: Hye Jung Lee as Lisa; edited image, based on a Gaston de Portola photograph, courtesy of the Florida Grand Opera.]
Adam Lau showed high promise in the small role of Alessio, who is enamoured of Lisa, and whom we assume turned out to be her bridgegroom once it was clear she had lost Elvino for all time.
The estimable Catherine Cook, who has become a specialist in the comprimario mezzo roles, played Teresa.
Spanish conductor Ramon Tebar delivered the luminous sound that Bellini’s work evokes and requires. John Keene directed the chorus.
I recommend this cast and this production unreservedly, and suggest it’s worth traveling a long distance to experience.
For my account of an historical performance and additional thoughts on this opera, see: 50 Year Anniversaries: Sutherland, Cioni in Bellini’s “Sonnambula” – San Francisco Opera, September 14, 1963.