Closed Community: La sonnambula at the Deutsche Oper Berlin

Bellini – La sonnambula

Amina – Venera Gimadieva
Elvino – Lawrence Brownlee
Il Conte Rodolfo – Ante Jerkunica
Lisa – Alexandra Hutton
Teresa – Helene Schneiderman
Alessio – Andrew Harris
Un notaro – Jörg Schörner

Chor der Deutschen Oper Berlin, Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin / Stephan Zilias.
Stage directors – Jossi Wieler & Sergio Morabito.

Deutsche Oper, Berlin, Germany.  Saturday, May 25th, 2019.

For their staging of La sonnambula, originally produced in Stuttgart but here revived at the Deutsche Oper, the directing team of Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito have updated the piece to the 1970s.  Set in a closed community, where everyone knows everybody else’s business, it makes for an interesting setting for the work.  Particularly so as the 1970s were a time of sexual liberation, following the sexual revolution of the preceding decade.  They start off with a strong premise – that Elvino and Amina’s relationship is a lot more physical than might have been the case in the early nineteenth century, when the work was originally produced.  We see the couple engaging in quite active intercourse during the Act 1 love duet, and Lisa is also a lot more physically liberated than we often see.  Similarly, Rodolfo was more than ready to take advantage of Amina when she sleepwalked into his room at night.

Wieler and Morabito give us a place of strong passions – Elvino is easily prone to violent outbursts and Lisa, similarly, is more than ready to make her feelings known.  Yet, in their vision Amina is shy and retiring, seemingly uncomfortable with the opening celebrations.  It did make me question why the community would celebrate her with such strength of feeling.  Perhaps, it was due to the fact that this was a community full of strength of character – the chorus very much a group of individuals, vividly acted, and not a faceless mob.  This was very much a strength of Wieler and Morabito’s staging.  There were, however, other aspects that I found problematic.

Photo: © Bernd Uhlig

When the crowd found Amina in Rodolfo’s bedroom, the sheets were also covered in blood, suggesting perhaps that the Count had taken her virginity, with Lisa holding up the sheet to show to the crowd with great glee.  However, given the physicality of Elvino and Amina’s relationship, as demonstrated previously, this was clearly impossible.  It let me to reflect that perhaps Amina had miscarried, a reflection borne out in the jubilant final chorus where Amina looked devastated and unable to celebrate.  And yet, this felt at odds with the jubilance of the music and of the libretto.  Similarly, the almost animal physicality with which Amina and Elivno went for it in their duet also felt at odds with the tenderness of the libretto.  It was an interesting reading but not always one that I found convincing, containing rather too many non sequiturs along the way.  This was as far from a staging of standing and delivering as one could imagine – singers most definitely interacted with each other, even if it meant that, at times, we were denied the full impact of their singing as they aimed their voices at each other, rather than into the audience, affecting the balance in places.

Photo: © Bernd Uhlig

This was also a staging that was extremely demanding for the singers in terms of physicality, given the technical demands of the music.  They deserve our admiration for being able to pull it off and throw themselves (literally, at times) into all that was asked of them.  Venera Gimadieva’s Amina, in particular, did some quite remarkable things – dispatching the intricate coloratura of her opening number with ease while having Helene Schneiderman’s Teresa do up the back of her dress, or dispatching long flowing lines while laying on her back.  Gimadieva was a late replacement for the indisposed Pretty Yende, but she already knows this staging well, having performed in it earlier this year.  It sounded however, that she was out of sorts in Act 1 – the coloratura brittle and smudged, the tone shallow.  In Act 2, she sounded like a completely different singer, pouring out streams of limpid, silvery tone in ‘ah! Non credea mirarti’, ideally phrased on the breath.  She rose to the closing ensemble with impeccable coloratura in ‘ah! Non giunge’, even throwing in a terrific high F for good measure.  It was an inconsistent performance but proved that Gimadieva can certainly deliver.

Photo: © Bernd Uhlig

Lawrence Brownlee was a superb Elvino.  He rose to the physicality of the staging, bringing out Elvino’s jealousy with quite alarming immediacy.  Yet, even though he sang with arresting passion, he never offered singing that was anything other than bel canto, giving a masterclass in acting with the voice without ever compromising the security of the technique.  His legato was always absolutely even, and he brought precisely that sense of instinctive musicality that cannot be taught.  Alexandra Hutton was a terrific Lisa – the tone full and bright, with impeccable coloratura and an easy top.  Indeed, it made me wonder whether she would be optimally cast in the title role.  Her comic timing and extrovert acting, made her character much more three dimensional than is often the case.  Ante Jerkunica sang Rodolfo with an expansive, generous bass, even from top to bottom and, despite the size, able to turn the corners with ease.  Andrew Harris offered us an equally warm and handsome bass (indeed he would also make a fine Rodolfo) while Schneiderman’s experienced Teresa was sung in a well-placed and fruity mezzo.

Photo: © Bernd Uhlig

The chorus was on good form, singing with imposingly full tone and tight discipline.  There were a few moments, however, when coordination between stage and pit went awry under Stephan Zilias’ direction, with a number of occasions when the orchestra and chorus parted company.  His was an interesting reading – a big, orchestral sound yet maintaining a rhythmic springiness with tempi that were relaxed and relatively unhurried.  It seemed like a good approach for a house of this size, although I would have preferred an even tighter sense of rhythmic impetus and strings without vibrato – but that is, of course, personal taste.  The orchestra played well for him, string intonation was true, and the brass behaved, other than a few horn splits towards the start.

Tonight’s performance was given a massive ovation by the Berlin public who reacted to the evening with audible glee.  It was satisfyingly sung, on the whole, although it did feel that Gimadieva only really found her form in the final scene.  Brownlee gave us some spectacular singing while the remainder of the cast clearly reflected the very high standards of the house.  Wieler and Morabito’s staging made for an interesting experience.  It had clearly been thoughtfully considered but if felt that there were, ultimately, perhaps too many moments in which the clarity of the storytelling didn’t quite express fully their vision – leaving me with too many ‘why’s.  What they do succeed in doing is making this piece a living, breathing vision of a closed community and that is definitely an admirable achievement.

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