Arts & Events

Island City Opera Presents Bellini’s LA SONNAMBULA

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Monday March 12, 2018 - 01:24:00 PM

Vincenzo Bellini’s La Sonnambula which to my knowledge was last seen in the Bay Area in a 1985 San Francisco Opera production featuring Frederica von Stade as Amina, the sleepwalker, tenor Dennis O’Neill as Elvino, and Samuel Ramey as Count Rodolfo, is currently enjoying a run by Alameda’s Island City Opera. In performances at Alameda’s Elks Lodge, La Sonnambula runs from March 7 to March 18. I attended the Sunday matinee on March 11; and La Sonnambula will also be given on Friday, March 16, and Sunday, Marc h 18. A trip to Alameda will be well worth your effort, for Island City Opera’s production of La Sonnambula is stellar. The cast is uniformly excellent; and the staging by director Olivia Stapp is both witty and intellectually stimulating. 

The latter statement is important, for La Sonnambula has not always been found intellectually stimulating. Its plot, with a libretto by Felice Romani, has too often been found wanting, if not a bit preposterous. It involves a beautiful, innocent young woman, Amina, from a Swiss mountain village who is beloved by all until she is found, on the eve of her church wedding to her beloved Elvino, sleeping in the bed of a mysterious aristocratic count who has only this day arrived in the village. The problem, you see, but which the villagers don’t see, is that Amina is a sleepwalker, one who is unaware of where she is and what she does while sleepwalking. When Amina sleepwalks into the room at the inn where the Count is staying, she thinks she is meeting her beloved Elvino. Realizing that Amina is sleepwalking, Count Rodolfo, a ladies man, is tempted to take advantage of her. But in the end he respects her innocence. However, the villagers do not respect Amina’s innocence when they happen to discover her asleep in the bedroom of the Count Rodolfo. Nor does her beloved Elvino believe that she is innocent. He feels sorely betrayed. 

It takes two full acts to sort out this issue; but Island City Opera’s production makes this opera move along at a brisk pace. Of course, there are many of Bellini’s long, languid arias and duets that seem to be endlessly lyrical, unfolding in extraordinarily long melodic lines with plenty of coloratura. But this is the joy of a Bellini opera. This is why we so highly value the special gifts of the Sicilian composer they nicknamed The Swan of Catania. 

In the role of Amina, soprano Eileen Meredith sang beautifully. In fact, this might be the best role I have heard her sing. Vocally and dramatically, Eileen Meredith threw herself into the character of Amina in a most convincing way. As her beloved Elvino, tenor Sergio Gonzalez equaled Eileen Meredith in vocal and dramatic conviction. They were well paired as lovers, well paired even in their moments when it was impossible for them to be on the same page in their love. But all works out well in the end. Even Count Rodolfo, who at first resembles Mozart’s Don Giovanni making advances to Zerlina on her wedding day to Masetto, eventually comes around to being a decidedly moral human being who helps educate the superstitious mountain villagers about somnambulism as a thoroughly understandable and forgivable human quirk. As Count Rodolfo, baritone Anders Froelich was outstanding. Vocally, he was superb; and he even danced up a storm at the village wedding celebration. 

In the role of Lisa, proprietress of a mountain village inn, soprano Aimee Puente was a hilariously over the top hussy, in love with Elvino but rebuffed by him, rebuffing in turn the attentions of Alessio, but ready at the drop of a hat (or an article of her clothing) to jump in bed with the newly arrived Count Rodolfo. Because of her unrequited love for Elvino, Lisa is a sworn enemy of Amina, Elvino’s beloved. So she schemes to alert the villagers when she happens to discover Amina asleep in Count Rodolfo’s bed, where, a moment earlier, she herself was all too ready to find herself. In a small but vitally important role as Teresa, mezzo-soprano Deborah Rosengaus was excellent as Amina’s foster mother. In the role of Alessio, a villager enamored of Lisa, bass Sam Rabonowitz was vocally robust and dramatically wimpy, as the plot requires. 

Throughout this production of La Sonnambula, Conductor Jonathan Khuner got the most out of his chamber-sized orchestra. A large chorus of villagers sang grandly in almost every scene of this opera. There were fine flute solos by Leslie Chin, bassoon solos by Kris King, clarinet solos by James Pyko, and percussion solos (including wood blocks to sound like horses’ hooves) by McKenzie Camp. Set and costume design, while rudimentary, were ably provided by Patrick Kroboth, Lighting was by David Lynch, and the overall stage direction by Olivia Stapp was a sheer delight. I can wholeheartedly recommend that you not miss this wonderfully entertaining and even instructive production of Bellini’s La Sonnambula.