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Saturday, March 8, 2014

Metropolitan Opera Preview: La Sonnambula

Diana Damrau wakes up this bel canto classic.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Sleep walkin': Diana Damrau (center) stars as Amina in La Sonnambula.
Photo by Marty Sohl © 2014 The Metropolitan Opera.
The Metropolitan Opera is presenting three Bellini operas this season. The second of them is La Sonnambula, the composer's most light-hearted work and the only Bellini work that could in any sense be called a comedy. It is the story of Amina, the titular sleepwalker whose nocturnal wanderings make the people of an Italian village suddenly believe in ghosts.

Mary Zimmerman's production (first presented in 2009) offers a window into the arduous process of opera rehearsal, staging the performance as a work-in-progress backstage at an unspecified opera house. There is a unit set, with modern furniture, metal doors and even red EXIT signs. The singers play out the show in this backdrop, with scene locations indicated on a chalkboard. (Yes, the audience hated it on opening night.)

The reason to hear this opera is Diana Damrau, who will walk a high wire in the title role. Amina is one of the most difficult Bellini roles, requiring a flawless command of fioratura singing, with trills and high notes that have spelled doom for many a diva. Her love interest is bel canto specialist Javier Camarena, who last appeared at the Met in a 2011 run of The Barber of Seville.

La Sonnambula opens March 14, 2014.

Recording Recommendation: 
Orchestra e coro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino cond. Richard Bonynge (Decca 1962)
Amina: Joan Sutherland
Elvino: Nicola Monti
Rodolfo: Fernando Corena

National Philharmonic Orchestra cond. Richard Bonynge (Decca, 1980)
Amina: Joan Sutherland
Elvino: Luciano Pavarotti
Rodolfo: Nicolai Ghiaurov

Along with Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland ("La Stupenda" to her fans) did much to revive interest in the genre of bel canto in the 20th century. The Australian soprano recorded Amina twice. The stellar technique and sky-scraping trills are heard to the best effect on her 1962 recording, which is only currently available as part of a Decca bargain box set that also includes three other Sutherland recordings of Bellini operas: Beatrice di Tenda, I Puritani and Norma. 

The later set pairs an aging but still potent Sutherland with an in-his-prime Luciano Pavarotti  On both sets, Richard Bonynge's sturdy conducting (he was Sutherland's husband) may not be especially inspired but it's all about the voices anyway.
Tickets for La Sonnambula are available at MetOperaFamily.Org, by calling (212) 362-6000, or at the box office starting August 11.

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