Remember that illuminating moment when first love hits? It can be a flutter in the solar plexus, an airy sensation in the head. It’s that light-headed feeling that is pure, wholesome love. That time can be like a dream. But if the lovers prove to be liars and do sneaky, mean things for selfish reasons, the bubble bursts and there is a huge comedown. Thanks to a cast of fresh, well-trained singers in the In Series Pocket Opera Company, Bellini’s 19th century jewel La Sonnambula (The Sleepwalker), directed by Steven Scott Mazzola, rekindled memories of the power of love for me on Thursday night. The barefaced idealism is refreshing. The singing is glorious.
We are thrust into a post-W.W.I alpine village in northeastern Italy, the Dolomites, suggested by five rotating, flats painted with mountain ranges, and rolling green meadows. A network of somber, dark stone walls encircle and frame the set (design by Osbel Susman-Peña.) The instrumental ensemble (violins, cello, and woodwinds) is placed upstage, behind a gauzy scrim.
What truly distinguishes this In Series production are the many fine moments when music and meaning come together. Thanks to singers like soprano CarrieAnne Winter as Amina, with a range of three octaves, the bel canto (beautiful song), goes further than the showmanship of a florid display of the singer’s vocal virtuosity.
The interval leaps and florid cadenzas and trills are organic and express organically what Amina experiences in the moment. “I’m feeling my soul,/dancing wildly inside/Inside my heart.” Winter handles the leaps in pitch with effortless ease. Her cadenzas flow like a rippling stream, expressing her excitement of youthful love for Elvino. “Can you feel my heart beat?” delivered like an excited child with convincing innocence. And our hearts in the audience skip a beat.
In their opening duets during the wedding preparation scene, Amina and Elvino seem to call to each other like angels.
It is as if one musical note is inadequate to express the exuberant joy the characters are celebrating. So the they break out into cadenzas, in a shower of musical notes. Their declaration of love for each other is exemplified in: “Take it, this ring”.. (Prendi: l’annel ti dono)”….we make a sacred vow of love,” as Elvino gives Amina a bouquet of flowers, that become an important symbol of their love later on. If only angels didn’t fall from grace, from their trance of perfection; but as in Milton’s Paradise Lost, angels do fall from heaven. Elviro in his aria “I am jealous of everything,” [Son geloso] is so jealous he resents the breeze that caresses Amina’s face. And there you have the opera’s basic conflict.
But what really sets 19th century composer Vincenzo Bellini’s opera apart is the way he uses sleepwalking to build the tension of this love triangle into a spine-tingling climax.
In La Sonnambula, two young women are filled with zeal and vie for the same man, Elvino. Winter as Amina, plays the unassuming Cinderella-type, an orphan, adopted by Teresa, a caring motherly-type who owns the village inn. (Sung and played by Patricia Portillo or Christine Browne-Munz on 1/23)
Tenor Joe Haughton brings a startling, heart-felt stage presence and ringing-resonant tenor to Elvino, a wealthy young landowner, the hero with a white-hot temper and flaw for jealousy, easily aroused. When Elvino proposes to Amina, Lisa, manager of the inn, becomes Amina’s jealous rival, and the game gets hot. Soprano Kimberly Christie brings a soaring soprano voice, saturated with saucy sweetness, coupled with spirited acting, that enlivens the role of Lisa.
In contrast, Alessio, sung by bass-baritone Edwardo Castro, one of the more rustic town country boys, loves Lisa, who spurns him and. offers some comic relief, as does Teresa, soprano Pat Portillo, who weeps loudly and blows her nose with a honking noise during the more solemn refrains.
3 performances remain:
January 17th, at 8pm, Fri. Jan. 23, at 8pm
and Sun. Jan. 25, at 2:30pm
In Series at Source
1835 14th St., NW
Washington, DC 20009
2 hours, 10 minutes with 1 intermission
Details and Tickets
or call 202 204-7763
A must mention: Rodolfo, dressed in muddy-brown WWI officer’s uniform, complete with white leggings, or spats (costumes by Donna Breslin), arrives in the village to lay claim to an inheritance from his father and stays the night in a room at the inn. But here comes the kicker. Amina, dressed in white, who is mistaken for a terrifying ghost by the local townspeople, is in actuality a sleepwalker who that very same night, innocently wanders, while asleep, into the Rodolfo’s room and falls asleep in his bed.
Meanwhile, Lisa who is spying on the newly arrived mysterious stranger, sneaks into Rodolfo’s room and discovers Anima in a compromising situation. “So she’s a cheater,” Lisa mockingly gossips to her naive villager friends. Thus, Lisa exposes Amina’s alleged infidelity and shatters all wedding plans for Amina and Elvino, who loses his cool in a jealous rage. When tenor Haughton expresses his belief he’s been cuckolded in Act II, his subsequent rage is spine tingling. But never fear, although this fairy tale begs for our radical suspensions of disbelief, it builds to a wonderfully melodramatic happy ending.
The beauty of sleepwalking as a dramatic device is that a dreamer doesn’t pass judgment, accepts with full faith what is happening within the trance and doesn’t block the flow. It’s an oracle, like a lie-detector test, in which the truth gets told or shown. Sleepwalking is a powerful dramatic device, especially in the final and famous scene, Ah! Non credea/Is it so, sweet flowers? which I much prefer hearing in Italian.
It’s the highpoint that says it all. Winter balances precariously on the downstage wall, that confronts us in the audience. Winter’s vocalizing coupled with a depth of deeply felt sincerity, the arc of Amina’s character is fully developed into a higher state of consciousness, and the scene is exquisitely beautiful. You could hear a pin drop. “I did not believe you would fade so soon, oh flower.” (Ah! non credea mirarti/Si presto estinto, o fiore) At any second, Amina could slip and fall to her death from that wall, [which in the original opera is a high-risk mill bridge, suspended like a high-wire, across the stage.]
In that last scene, Winter conveys anguish one moment, a mature acceptance of the loss of love, with added spirituality. She is no longer singing songs of wide-eyed, child-like love and trust, with bouncy octave leaps. She is a sad but wise mature woman, on her way to church, expressing her passion and spiritual love. And Winter piles on one cadenza after another, each reaching higher range with a light touch so the tones build like cumulus clouds in a summer day. And we are elevated into a higher state of mind.
This is the first Bellini opera the In Series has tried. The original Italian libretto by Felice Romani has been translated, and rewritten in English by Steven Scott Mazzola, who also doubles as stage director. The text sung in English works, in that it frees us in the audience of sur-titles. Yet, Mazzola plays a joke on us.. At the end of Act I, there is a delightful moment when Amina and Elvino sing good-night to each other, in Italian. “Mio caro,”/”My dear,” Amina sings. “Mia Cara,” Elvino responds. It’s as if Mazzola, as translator, tires of English and is playfully reminding us that the original was written in Italian.
But it’s that build to the last moment when Amina teeters sleepwalking on that wall, that is memorable. If Amina falls, she dies. “Ah!non credea mirarti” is translated by Steven Mazzola as “Oh! If only I could see him/once again, talk to him/before another goes with him to the altar….. I have lost him. But, why? I am not guilty…” The epitome of Amina’s pure, warm, eternal love for Elviro transcends all earthly love.
One last point must be made about Steven Mazzola’s staging. He uses a torn back drop curtain, a really brilliant stage maneuver, to resolve the issue of how to bring the main characters, Elvino, Teresa and Captain Rudolfo, together in that final sleepwalking scene so that they are observing Amina.
But the highpoints, when text and bel canto singing come together organically, and create truly moving moments, are the reason for experiencing this In Series La Sonnambula. It’s a call to simplify life, to return to country and nature, to child-like innocent, spiritual love. Sleeping, dreaming is more real than life itself. This is a romance of sincerely, deeply-felt emotion versus an outer world of cold reflection.
La Sonnambula (The Sleepwalker) by Vincenzo Bellini . Adapted and directed by Steven Scott Mazzola .
Produced by In Series Pocket Opera Company at the Source Theatre . Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy.