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Tuesday 8 November 2011

La Sonnambula

Royal Opera House

La Sonnambula is hardly a staple of the ROH's repertoire so it was nice to get a chance to see this opera. Or at least it should have been. I absolutely loved Eglise Gutiérrez's voice in Cendrillon last season, so was very much looking seeing her again here. Youtube reveals a truly staggering voice: just listen to the final section of this Caro Nome. On the evidence of that video and the singing I heard in Cendrillon it appears she has one of the most beautiful operatic instruments on the stage today. And up close I'm sure it is. But heard at greater length and more exposed it doesn't translate in the theatre. The basic problem is that the sound is far too covered - lots of sopranos do this in their lower range to darken the tone when they are singing roles that are too heavy for them (*cough cough* Gheorghiu) - but sopranos can also choose to do this higher up, like tenors and baritones have to do to negotiate the passagio. It gives a feeling of control to the performer, and sounds absolutely fantastic to the soprano herself. But across a concert hall, it gives the sound an occluded, domed quality, like a film or a cap that is covering the sound. While it can be a beautiful occasionally for a floated pianissimo high note (and it worked for the fairy godmother in Cendrillon), if it's done all the time, it quickly becomes very boring and that's unfortunately what was happening here with Gutiérrez - there's nothing exciting in the sound, no edge, no sense of risk. Every. Single. Note was placed which is not what you want in this of all repertoire - what's called for is thrilling, full throttle risk taking, not merely accuracy. And unfortunately it wasn't even that accurate - this constant placing meant rhythms were often wayward, and surprisingly there was more than the occasional out of tune passage and high note.

Elena Xanthoudakis had a less beautiful voice perhaps, but at least she could thrill us with it, and as a result was much more satisfying as love rival Lisa. The way she pottered around was funny also. I don't know if Gutiérrez is a poor actress or whether it was the fault of the awful production, but it was hard to care too much about the central story. Marco Arturo Marelli designed and directed the original production (revival direction by Andreas Reisner), and apparently it's set in some sort of mountain lodge/hotel/ward, not at all clear who the patients or staff are. It appears Amina is a waitress in the beginning before she gets changed into her wedding dress in the hall! Yeah I have no idea what they were thinking either. It's a single set all the way through, sort of 20s/30s continental looking with a view of the alps out of the back window. My god is it dull. Michele Pertusi sings beautifully and has some character, doing his best, but it's a bad sign when the Count Rodolfo is the best voice on stage. Celso Albelo can basically sing the part (there was a cringeworthy moment in the unnacompanied portion of the duet), but is one of the dullest tenors I've ever heard. No physical acting to speak of (obviously) and worse in this repertoire, no vocal acting at all - a single tone colour all the way. As soon as he started singing I found myself drifting away from the action, my eyes suddenly caught by the auditorium lighting, or some seat detail. I couldn't help it. Everyone else sung well actually, and Elizabeth Sikora as Teresa, Amina's foster mother, displayed some really beautiful things in her voice, small though the part was. Young Artist Jihoon Kim was good as Alessio.

Seriously though, what a waste of time. This repertoire needs the singers to carry it off, but providing the score with staticism and tedium in the direction and set design really doesn't help matters. A story which is premised on simple idiocy is hard enough to be engaged by as it is.

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