Social Isolation: La sonnambula at the Teatro Real

Bellini – La sonnambula

Amina – Nadine Sierra
Elvino – Xabier Anduaga
Il Conte Rodolfo – Roberto Tagliavini
Lisa – Rocío Pérez
Teresa – Monica Bacelli
Alessio – Isaac Galán
Un notaro – Gerardo López

Coro Titular del Teatro Real, Orquesta Titular del Teatro Real / Maurizio Benini.
Stage directors – Bárbara Lluch.

Teatro Real, Madrid, Spain.  Sunday, December 18th, 2022.

This new production of La sonnambula, confided to the Catalan director, Bárbara Lluch, marked the closing production of 2022 at the Teatro Real.  It’s been four years since I’ve had the pleasure of visiting this iconic theatre and that really is far too long to be away – the quality of the house forces, and the depth of the casting, make this a house that really is worth visiting.

Photo: © Javier del Real / Teatro Real

La sonnambula might come across as a bit of an improbable story these days – the sleepwalker who the superstitious villagers think is a ghost; the shame of being caught alone in a man’s room; not to mention the fact that the Count was tempted to take advantage of said sleepwalker in her sleep.  Lluch transfers the drama to what appears to be an equally superstitious and moralistic society, an insular hyper-religious society that could be in the prairies of the United States.  This is a closed community, hostile to outsiders, where any departure from the ‘norm’ is frowned upon.  This was made clear in how the chorus initially blocked Rodolfo’s access to the village en masse.  Similarly, they formed a threatening ring around Amina as her supposed betrayal became apparent.  Within a basic set, Lluch uses the chorus to create that large intimidating mob, although it felt far too often that they were simply parked there as a mass, rather than a group of defined individuals – though perhaps that was the point.

Photo: © Javier del Real / Teatro Real

Both acts start with a brief music-less ballet sequence featuring Amina and what appear to be zombies.  In this respect, it felt that Lluch was paying homage to the supernatural aspects of the story.  And yet I left the theatre, wondering what it was I had actually witnessed – particularly since Amina sings her big closing number from a ledge outside a house, high above the remainder of the cast.  It was certainly a striking stage picture, but was also terrifying to watch, given that Nadine Sierra’s Amina was up there apparently without any safety wiring around the ledge – she’s exceptionally brave for doing that because it didn’t look especially safe.  It led me to wonder whether Amina was in fact, already dead, and was simply pursued by the zombies as she went through some kind of purgatory.  Or were the zombies in fact people from the village threatening her for supposed loose morals, even though that would not make sense in the context of the opening chorus lauding her.  Perhaps, Lluch was trying to make a point that Amina would never be redeemed in the eyes of the village and she was destined to be permanently locked out – illustrated by the chorus forming a human wall at the front of the stage at the end, restricting our view of Elvino, Rodolfo and the others.  Lluch may in fact have been making an observation about women’s agency in early colonial societies – no happy ending here.  Ultimately, this was a thoughtful piece of theatre, but one that felt that it didn’t quite know what it wanted to say.  It’s an interesting premise, but I left not knowing if we were watching a ghost or a horror story, or a reflection on a society very different to our own – particularly as the zombies disappeared from the second half of Act 2 onwards.

Photo: © Javier del Real / Teatro Real

Musically, it was an extremely positive evening, if not without some reservations.  I found that Maurizio Benini took the title of the work perhaps a little too literally in his conducting.  Hard to think that this was the same maestro who conducted that thrillingly vital Anna Bolena in València just a few months ago.  Benini’s tempi were slow and languorous, robbing the work of dramatic tension.  He was an extremely supportive accompanist, pulling the tempo back to allow Sierra to demonstrate her remarkable breath control – though that also meant her opening scene felt stop/start.  That said, the quality of the playing Benini obtained from the house orchestra, the Orquesta Sinfónica de Madrid, was superb – the horns, in particular, playing with striking accuracy, and attack throughout the band was absolutely precise.  The was a deep bel canto sensibility in the orchestral playing, founded on an impeccable beauty of line, particularly evident in the eloquent horn solo.  The house chorus, the Coro Intermezzo, sang with firm tone, but from my seat, admittedly close to the front, a number of individual voices stood out from the texture.  They also focused on a most welcome beauty of tone.

Photo: © Javier del Real / Teatro Real

This was certainly a bel canto evening and Sierra gave us a technically outstanding piece of singing.  The voice is medium-sized but carries well.  She’s capable of some almost super-human breath control, spinning long, languid lines with a beautifully smooth legato.  Sierra also gave us some exciting acuti, and seemed genuinely surprised when the audience responded to her big opening scene with a massive, show-stopping ovation.  Sierra also has a genuine trill and a real ability to turn the corners.  Her ‘ah! Non credea mirarti’ was sung with easy phrasing and an admirable legato.  Yet, as you may have suspected, there’s a ‘but’ here: Sierra left me cold.  This was undoubtedly one of the most technically superb pieces of singing I’ve heard in a while, but I longed for more than that.  It felt that Sierra never quite penetrated the surface of the music.  The text was clear, but there was a distinct lack of variation of vocal colour or an attempt to bring out meaning.  She didn’t grip me and make me believe in what she was singing.  The technical geek in me was happy, but this music is about more than just making a beautiful noise, it’s about finding truth and meaning in love, loss and happiness.  Sierra’s soprano also has a tendency to dwell on the underside of the note.  Again, her Amina was clearly the work of a great technician, and the audience clearly responded to that, but I longed for something more.

Photo: © Javier del Real / Teatro Real

We definitely got that something more in Xabier Anduaga’s Elvino.  His tenor has wonderful ping, projecting into this large house with ease, with a thrilling, radiant top and registers always integrated, negotiating the passaggio most impressively.  Anduaga used the text fully to colour the tone, using those Italian vowels to provide warmth of tone, and the consonants to project to the tone into the house.  Anduaga mapped Elvino’s journey from excited, yet swaggering, bridegroom, to the pain of betrayal, and back, both through his credible acting and in the way that he exploited the beauty of the music, and indeed of his tenor, with the text.  Anduaga is only in his late twenties and I very much hope that he has the right people around him to guide his choices, as his is an exceptional talent.

Photo: © Javier del Real / Teatro Real

Roberto Tagliavini sang Rodolfo in a warm, liquid bass with a true legato and wonderful resonance.  This is a Rolls Royce of a voice: classy, with a well-schooled technique and deep understanding of the style.  Rocío Pérez gave us a lively Lisa with plenty of electrifying acuti of her own.  She lived the text and if her soprano isn’t the most refulgent, she has personality to spare and was a highly engaging stage presence.  Monica Bacelli brought her familiar, somewhat raspy, mezzo and verbal acuity to the role of Teresa, while Isaac Galán was a handsomely-voiced Alessio. 

Photo: © Javier del Real / Teatro Real

There was so much to enjoy in this Sonnambula.  Musically, there were so many thrills, singing of great beauty, electrifying acuti, and impeccable legato across the cast.  Yes, I found Benini’s conducting to be focused on beauty over drama, but the quality of the playing he obtained from the orchestra was superb.  Lluch’s staging gave much to look at, but I’m not quite convinced of her concept – or indeed what she was ultimately aiming at.  The response from the Madrid audience was overwhelmingly positive, not least for Sierra, and the audience had clearly been utterly thrilled by what was above all an evening of true bel canto. 

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