La Sonnambula
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La Sonnambula

Staatstheater am Gärtnerplatz

WITH THE POSSIBLE EXCEPTION OF NORMA, one can search the opera houses of Germany, Austria and Switzerland near and far and hardly find a Vincenzo Bellini opera in the repertoire. In general, the term bel canto is, in the German-speaking world, equated with simple melody, uninspired orchestration and subordination of text. Munich's Staatstheater am Gärtnerplatz, attempting to change the public's historically jaundiced relationship to Bellini, mounted a new production of  La Sonnambula in the Prinzregententheater.  On October 20, the fifth performance in a short series of only six, it became eminently clear by the middle of the first scene that the Gärtnerplatz had not stinted itself either in terms of casting or production. 

Sets (Andreas Donhauser and Renate Martin) were realistic, with a projection of an early nineteenth-century Swiss Alpine village, complete with digitally enhanced, cascading waterfalls and a flowing stream cutting through village and mountains, adorning the rear of the stage.  A movable platform was sufficient to portray both Count Rodolfo's and Amina's rooms and, ultimately a suspended bed allowed Amina to begin her sleepwalk high above the stage before the work's finale. As the Prinzregententheater has no facilities for set storage, this simple but appropriate solution worked extremely well. The same pair's costumes were elegant and, if slightly later than the turn of the eighteenth century, were still very much of the era. Michael Sturminger thankfully refrained from overdirecting, keeping his staging concise and compelling. 

The star of the evening was soprano Jennifer O'Loughlin in the role of Amina. She sang the role with consummate beauty of tone, sparkling coloratura and stunning top notes. Her breath control allowed her to spin out the endless phrases so essential in Bellini, her depth of feeling made her character at all times believable, her dynamic shading (including stunning, spun-out pianissimos) went straight to the heart of the character. In fact, there was precious little missing, her interpretation approaching the achievements of the opera world's elite. 

The idea to make Count Rodolfo much younger and more elegant than usual seemed quite logical. His flirtation with Lisa, his obvious interest in many of the town's attractive women, particularly Amina herself, and Elvino's subsequent jealousy, become implausible when the returning Count is portrayed as an elderly gentleman. In the suave and handsome Russian bass Maxim Kuzmin-Karavaev, the role was both dramatically and musically ideally cast. 

Alessandro Luciano was, in comparison, a small-voiced if stylish Elvino. True, he sang all of the exposed high notes with no strain but his voice, though entirely satisfactory, lacked both color and distinction. It was especially pleasing that the smaller roles were cast with distinction. Maria Nazarova was a pert Lisa, with tons of personality and a voice to match. She nearly stole the show in her "almost"-marriage scene in Act II. The Teresa of Anna Agathonos was likewise impressive as she became an integral part of the strong vocal ensemble that also included Martin Hausberg as Alessio. The chorus has much to do in this opera and both chorus and extrachorus of the Gärtnerplatz (prepared by Felix Meybier) were technically and tonally immaculate. Conductor Marco Comin miraculously drew true bel canto style out of the Gärtnerplatz Orchestra. Comin made sure to keep the music flowing while at the same time allowing his singers the plasticity which the score demands. 

In our age of impatience and constant hurry, where reading the next insignificant e-mail seems to be a moral imperative, Bellini's elegiac, heartfelt music—when performed well—is like a breath of fresh air, like a return to innocence. Here in the Prinzregententheater, the Gärtnerplatz convinced the sold out audience that it is more than worthwhile to bask in a genial composition, proving once again that simplicity is not the same as banality and that the emotional truth contained in a Bellini melody can be overwhelming.  —Jeffrey A. Leipsic 

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