"It is a real sign of the times when no less than 4 Bellini operas (Beatrice di Tenda, Norma, I puritani and La sonnambula) are now available to commercial home video. Though the film version of Sonnambula has bounced around for awhile on pirate and semi-commercial labels, a lip-synched film hardly counts as a legit live performance.
The performance under review here hardly does justice to the opera.
To begin with, the score is brutally massacred. We are back to the bad old times here: MOST of all second verses are lopped off, with internal trims everywhere ("Ah! non giunge is the only non-casualty). "Sovra il sen la man mi posa" is guillotined, Lisa's section act aria is gone, as is the quartet that follows. This performance should be called "Sonnambula Snippets." I don't know if these cuts are at the behest of the producers or the conductor, but they are shameful, inexcusable in light of today's awareness of proper performance practices.
Daniel Oren, the conductor, nevertheless chooses slow tempos that make the opera seem longer, even with the cuts.
The direction is awkward, foolish. People seem randomly placed, with no sense of stage conception. The chorus stand hither and thither like sonnambulant statues, placed decoratively, but statically around the sets and principals. And they look bored to the gills.
The production looks to me like it's set in the early part of the 20th century, about 1915 or 1920. The costumes, though inappropriate to the real story's time, are elegantly snazzy, expensive and eye-catching. The sets are funky, and not in a good way. For the first part of act one, there's a raked stage with storybook fairy-tale grass and boxy house in background. It opens with the pantomime figure of Amina going to a red chair in the center of the stage; she curls up in it and the chair lowers down into the stage. Weird. Then it shows the real Amina (ostensibly) in the window, asleep, spotlighted, as the prelude sounds. Second part of first act, same set, only there's a wheat field in front of the raked stage, where Amina is found sleeping and later begins her wet-dream sonnambufits. The Count is lying on a brilliant neon red sofa with three orange beach umbrellas all encircled around him, upon which Amina somehow winds up and is subsequently discovered. Second act opens up to a wintry tableau, snowy ground with a dark emerald green tinted background, the chorus now all in black. Later on, for Amina's walk across the "bridge," she does so on this metal Tinker-Toy thing which lowers down onto the stage, one end tilting and lurching down to allow Amina back to earth. In the recitative before "Ah! non giunge," while an "indoor" backdrop with chandelier drops down, that red chair pops back up from the middle of the snow covered stage, which Amina gets into and falls back asleep: Rodolfo passes his hand across her, like a sorcerer, and "wakes" her up. Huh? How hard do I gotta think about this? Do I HAVE to?
The concept and bizarro colors are intriguing in a distractedly distractable way, but it was not part of the solution, so therefore, it was a BIG part of the dismal problem. It just didn't work. Sonnambula is one of those operas where time and place are so resolutely, irrevocably wedded to the music and themes that it is nearly impossible to depart from this stubbornly set-in-stone countenance. The innocence and rustic aspects of the setting do not update well. The story, though laden with deeply expressed emotions, is spectacularly simple and straightforward. It doesn't lend itself well to "conceptualization." This production screamed out the meaning of "pointless, lame attempt." Fatally gimmicky, it forces the viewer to look for and discover a nameless (so named because it doesn't exist) element that is not there to begin with. These hip, totally rad, cool, groovy, and mod intrusions is a sure sign of the Designated Design Team's reluctance to trust the opera to stand on its own. In doing so, they distracted the audience from the piece's built-in depth, instead of enhancing it. The depth is IN the music, alleged, self-appointed opera directors!
What this piece needs is quartet of true bel canto essayists to carry the music and text to its fullest. Sonnambula is a beautiful, endearing opera, one that needs exceptional artists to convey its wondrous charms. I'm not sure the ability to do this exists in our jaded mindsets of today.
Credit must be given, however, to the singers in this performance for succeeding to a good degree, in their singing and characterization.
Giacomo Prestia, the Rodolfo, looks and acts the part of the dignified gentleman; but he's confoundingly made out to be a kind of playboy later on. Prestia has a pleasing voice, but unfortunately, most of his sustained notes are quite juddery, unsteady and loose. He ignores the all-important upward slurs in "Vi ravviso," which removes the elegance it should have. These slurs are so often casually ignored, and they're so important, so crucial to Bellinian expressiveness, that anyone who leaves them out is surely clueless to the style of the music.
José Bros turns in a committed performance of Elvino. He certainly has the awareness and eloquence of a Bellinian line; "Prendi, l'anel to dono" in particular is sweetly, meltingly sung. The highest notes are a bit hard in tone, and slightly unsteady, but Bros is a good actor (ardor and wounded pride are wonderfully expressed), a fine, sensitive artist, and he and Mei really do share a noticeable collegial rapport - that is, when they're given a chance to do so. Their duets together are charming, and they complement each other well.
Gemma Bertagnoli's scheming Lisa is properly tarty, and she has a fresh, clear tone: but she has so much music cut that she's barely part of the action...and when she is, she seems just randomly stuck in there.
Eva Mei, like Bros, is a sterling artist, and really gives her all as Amina. Though she's been around as a soubrette type of coloratura for a few years now, she first really impressed me with her well-sung and daring performance of Thais in Venice, which is now on DVD.
Mei - here looking uncannily like a young Suzanne Pleshette - manages to convey Amina's innocence, charm and sweetness. Her facial expressions are delightful, both in joy and sorrow (her indications and utterances of heartbreak are genuinely moving): she is an intelligent, natural, eloquent actress. Mei's delicate voice, though a bit on the light side, is pure and fresh as spring water - clear, sweet-toned, with an Italianate ping that's bracing to the ears. The final scene is poignantly sung, done with the requisite 'tear' in the voice. The "Ah, non credea," though slender in tone, is beautiful - long lined, expressive, nice shadings and taperings of phrase endings (and Bros's interjections match her stylings gracefully). The "Ah! non giunge!" here DOES benefit from a slower tempo: it sounds more genteel, sweeter, less hectic. I rather think this approach suits Amina's country girl persona.
A bit worrisome though, are many of Mei's sustained upper tones, which waver precipitously. And I'm not sure she is cut out for the bel canto fach. There are no trills, and some of her passagework is blurred and unfinished. Intervals to upper tones are somewhat laborious, not nimble and springy. The several high notes she incorporates are not easy for her, and they are a bit narrow and piercing (the E flat that comes in after the chorus interval between verses of "Ah! non giunge!" sounds a hair short of its pitch value). I think Mei is like a lot of supposed "coloratura" sopranos: youth gives them freshness and reasonable agility, but as soon as they get in their 40s, lyric-soubrette roles eventually become their true metier (think Battle, Streich).
I remain impressed with Mei, ultimately. As I said earlier, her Thais really commanded my respect, and this Amina no less so. It is because of her and Bros that I will hang onto this release. It's still to my chagrin that this opera is represented on DVD by this ultra-dumb production and hacked up score.
Dream Within A Dream
J. M. Parr | Ottawa,Canada | 06/03/2006
(4 out of 5 stars)
",I found more to enjoy in this production than did some other reviewers. Sonnambula is a hard opera to stage literally today. The rather lame story does not hold up well in the 21st century in spite of Bellini's gorgeous music. I think that director Federico Tiezzi has found a gentle way to update the story without violating it entirely (some directors would not hesitate to set this opera in a mental assylum.) Tiezzi starts with the premise that Annina is already sleepwalking when the opera begins therefore the entire opera is her dream while sleepwalking. He converys this cleverly by having the chorus and principals react more naturally while she is interacting with them and less naturally when they are not. I thought it worked extremely well. The updating to the Edwardian period was not out of place. The action, if odd at times in the manner that dreams can be, seemed well thought out. I loved the idea of having Count Rodolfo sing "Vi raviso" after Lisa gives him a guidebook with pictures in it, she is the village innkeeper after all. Eva Mei is a delightfully engaged Annina. She has worked hard on her acting. At all times she was natural and not at all wooden or studied in a role which doesn't offer a lot of drama to latch onto. I was also impressed with her singing. Some other reviewers have commented on deficiencies in her vocal production but this is a merciless bel canto role which has challenged nearly every singer who has taken it on. Even Callas' shortcomings were exposed by this role at times. Jose Bros is a light and generally pleasant tenor. His acting is somewhat more wooden than his Annina but one is grateful for his dependable presence throughout the opera. I was much taken with Nicoleta Curiel as Teresa (she has an absolutely gorgeous smile) and have no complaint to make about Giacomo Prestia's assumption of the Count. The chorus and orchestra (incidentally the same ones that were involved in Sutherland's truly wonderful first recording some 40 years earlier) are superb under Daniel Oren's sensitive if leisurely direction. The chorus take the once famous Phantom chorus in Act 01 with the most breathtaking controll of dynamics. Bravi ladies & gentlemen. I can't say I was bothered by the cuts that were made in the opera. I think this is an opera better enjoyed in concert or on cd anyway. All in all a lovely ,sensitive, and at times whimsical rendition of an opera firmly stuck in it's long ago period. "
The Florence 2004 Sonnambula DVD Review
Bernal Jimenez | Gaithersburg, MD United States | 11/15/2005
(3 out of 5 stars)
"We've been subjected to plenty of suit-and-tie Wagner over the years and now it's Bellini's turn. I am not a traditionalist when it comes to opera staging and I've been able to enjoy many "daring", "creative", "updated", or "modern" approaches (to use some of the euphemisms) to older repertory works, but it would be nice if the first professional video recording available on DVD of any opera were a traditional production. It would be more suited for newcomers to the opera. "Controversial" is the term the short essay included in the booklet uses to describe the initial public reception of this production in 2000 (the recording on this DVD is from January 2004). For the revival of this "update" at the Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, the action is said to be taking place in the late 19th century. I am not an expert in fin-de-siècle apparel or architecture, so I'll say with no shame that the Act I set and bright-colored clothing looked to me like straight out of one of those Great Gatsby parties. For the cold, gloomy Act II the clothing turns dark (symbolizing the turn of events for poor Amina) and here on the snow-covered ground they all look like Titanic survivors. I know both Gatsby and Titanic are iconic 20th century visions, and I guess they're not that far in time from when this is supposed to take place, but experts on fabric, window panes, and the placement of buttons might strongly disagree. I wasn't offended by the choices in sets and costumes, but I'm not entirely sure that they really work or add anything to the piece. Eva Mei's name on an opera set used to depress me tremendously. The batch of operas she recorded in the mid to late 90's for RCA/BMG featured otherwise stellar casts doing great work and she was always the weakest link. Were it not for her, the Tancredi and Capuleti would be near ideal. While technically on the mark, the distracting breathiness, that insidious loud sound of unused, unmodulated empty air enveloping her notes made for unfortunate listening. Even worse in my book, her tone was impossibly boring. The Don Pasquale CD is good evidence for this yawn-inducing timbre. Since then, Ms. Mei has quite admirably acquitted herself through her recent video recordings. While the color of her voice, quite frankly, is still in the generic category, these DVDs have revealed quite an engaging artist, a committed actress, and a superb singer. She no longer sounds asthmatic. Check her out on DVD in Entführung, Don Pasquale, and most importantly, she delivers a marvelous red-hot performance of Thaïs on Dynamic you do not want to miss. Here in Sonnambula she displays all that is good with her signing: fine coloratura, impressive breath control, lovely pianissimi, strong dramatic commitment to the text, elegant ornamentation, plus secure high notes. If you don't enjoy this DVD it will not be because of her. Jose Bros (Elvino) is one of those good reliable singers that will deliver a perfectly enjoyable, respectable performance without blowing your socks off. He acts through his voice, not his body. The emotions of his character are expressed by means of vocal coloring, but his face and gestures are exactly the same whether he is sad, angry, or enjoying the wonders of being deeply in love. He can sing softly but can also ring out loud, exciting high notes. He does not disappoint at all but he also doesn't make you run out to buy every CD and DVD he's in. The rest of the cast is quite good, in particular the well-sung and expertly-acted Rodolfo of Giacomo Prestia, who was unknown to me. I don't have any major objections with Daniel Oren's conducting - the tempos were fine with me and the orchestra playing is first-rate. However, this release loses one full star rating (and it should be more) because of the cuts in the score. We're not talking just the usual repeats annoyingly taken out in bel canto operas. Act II is butchered to the point of feeling like it's over in 10 minutes: "Perche non posso odiarti" barely gets in with one verse, Lisa's lovely arietta (a guilty pleasure of canary fanciers like myself) is omitted entirely, as is the "Lisa, mendace anch'essa" ensemble. The booklet admits to this chopping but defends it by saying that it is done "so that the focus is more than ever on the heroine". You'll decide whether you agree this is a good thing. I do not. It's the sort of thing that almost makes you wish for an FDA sort of agency to force TDK to put a "highlights" label on the packaging. I implied earlier that this was the first available commercial DVD of this opera, which is not true. But the Moffo video from the 50's is in a class entirely of its own as a grainy and faded historical black-and-white, lip-synched, Italian TV curiosity of interest only to hardcore opera buffs and can therefore not be compared to a contemporary recording from the stage. I'm not putting the Moffo down, it's just apples and oranges. So, at this point, if you need or want a Sonnambula on DVD, you'll have no choice but to go for this Florence production. And that's not all that bad since there's plenty of good beautiful music playing and singing to enjoy. Just ignore the staging if that bothers you, and remember that there would be even more beautiful music to be enjoyed had it not been cut. Video and audio quality is excellent. Video direction is beyond reproach. The DVD includes no extras. Subtitles are available in English, Italian, German, French, and Spanish. I doubt many readers will watch this, as I did, with the Spanish subtitles on. I just have to say here that, knowing the Italian text well, this was the best translation of an opera libretto for DVD that I have seen to date. "
Ronizetti | Indianapolis, IN United States | 11/12/2005
(2 out of 5 stars)
"I Sonnambuli may be a more accurate description of this procution... The direction and sets would put anyone to sleep; very distracting coloring/lighting and director "touches" that are completely lost on an audience. That aside, the sound quality of this disc is astonishing; Mei's POWERFUL voice can be hear in full bite! While I don't fancy Mei for coloratura roles the powerful thrust of her voice IS impressive and heard here at it's best. Jose Bros is not in his best form, evident by a BUTCHERED version of "Ah Perche non posso ordarti" - one chopped verse only, no reprise, no cabaletta and MISSING the high note... VERY dissapointing as this is THE tenors moment in this opera, you blink and it would be missed! Incredible! One feels the conductor may be at fault for the impossible slowness in tempos ... Most notably at the finale "Ah non giunge", which should be sung with joyful abandon, whereas this falls terribly short due to the sonnambulist tempo and the near lack of any ornamentation or distinction on Mei's part - (aside from the aforementioned POWERFUL notes, with the final note held goriously long). Put this production back to sleep - Buona Notte"
Let's Go Back to Tradition
Dr. John W. Rippon | Florida | 07/21/2007
(1 out of 5 stars)
"I love La Sonnambula, I love all Bellini Operas. That long arching line of his arias thrills me to the core. This recording is one to listen to but not watch. The chorus is good, Mei is beautiful, the others do a adequate to good job but the production is painful. The other reviwers were correct and perceptive in their comments, lovely music but ugly production."