Australian music: Victorian Opera's 'La Sonnambula'

Bellini's opera La Sonnambula (The Sleepwalker) makes it to the stage  in Melbourne.

La Sonnambula by Vicenzo Bellini
Victorian Opera
Hamer Hall, Arts Centre Melbourne

Bellini’s opera La Sonnambula (The Sleepwalker) rarely makes it into the list of the top staged operas, which is unfortunate because it contains some glorious music and arias. In all fairness though, the plot line is a bit thin and there are few dramatic moments or settings to make stage productions thrilling.

The plot is straightforward involving two young women (Amina and Lisa) in love with the same man (Elvino). Amina spoils her chance of marriage by sleep-walking into the bedroom of Count Rudolfo, falling asleep and then being found by Elvino and the locals. Only on the eve of his marriage to Lisa and the second appearance of the sleep-walking Amina is everything resolved.

Bellini used the sleep-walking routine partly as a way of getting around the Austrian censors of that age who didn’t like the idea of royalty being seen as immoral. It was also a way of having a “fallen woman” who could later be reprieved.

The bel canto work has some superb arias and with limited dramatic action needs superb voices and Victorian Opera’s recent concert version of the work provided those voices, particularly in the four leads.

Having recently been awarded the Oscar della Lirica International award for best soprano of the year, Jessica Pratt was ideal in the lead role as Amina. From her opening “Care compagne” she had the audience enthralled as she invested the aria with amazing technical and emotional verve. Her voice was voluptuous and she had a robust stage presence, performing with a slight coquettishness that gave her a real sense of character. Her use of coloratura throughout the work added immensely to her performance, her voice towering over the other singers and orchestra, culminating in the final grand sextet: “Signor..che creder deggio.”

As Elvino Carlos Barcenas expressed his undying love of Amina in the first part of the opera, his disdain and rejection in the middle and then back to undying love with consummate ease. His voice took on a warmth or iciness as required.

Unfortunately, his physical engagement with Amina did not match his vocalising. Most of the time he stood, directing his attention at the audience. Pratt, on the other hand, was at all times using her face and gestures to indicate Amina’s emotional connection with Elvino

By contrast, Paolo Pecchioli’s Count Rudolfo was quite demonstrative and with his deeply sonorous, penetrating voice and strong presence created a strong character and provided some dramatic moments.

As Lisa Greta Bradman provided a number of passionate displays with her intense, lively voice, which often had a sharpness to it, underlining aspects of the character's personality.

Roxanne Hislop as Amina’s mother gave a satisfying display with a rich voice and an animated face while members of the chorus performed the two minor roles of Alessio (Timothy Newton) and The Notary (Thomas Dalton). Both created characters with an easy fluency and on-stage presence.

Although all the soloists gave great performances it was with the big trios, quartets and sextets that the audience was given sparking displays of sound both from the singers and the orchestra.

Orchestra Victoria and the large chorus were ably conducted by Richard Mills who ensured the music never dominated the singers.

Victorian Opera has a several works on this year’s programme including Leos Janacek’s Cunning Little Vixen which will be staged June 2 – July 1. The production will be directed by Stuart Maunder, the Artistic Director of New Zealand Opera. From September 15 – October 8 there will be the Tom Waits and William S. Burroughs cult musical fable The Black Rider which has become one of the most iconic pieces of avant-garde theatre.

They also have a youth opera The Second Hurricane by Aaron Copland and a regional opera The Snow Queen created by composer Gordon Kerry and writer John Kinsella based on the Hans Christian Andersen tale.