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New York City
May 2002

The Vienna State Opera
Magnificence in the pit. The orchestra says it all!
By Irving Spitz

In celebration of the bicentenary of Bellini’s birth, the Vienna State Opera mounted a new production of La Sonnambula, which gives full credit to Bellini’s memorable bel canto music, while instituting novel changes in setting and plot. The original plot is exceedingly dramatic. Set by the composer and his librettist, Romano, in an inn in a Swiss village, the opera opens with the celebration of Amina’s engagement to Elvino. These festivities are opposed by Lisa, the proprietor of the inn and former lover of Elvino, who is still in love with him. A stranger, Count Rodolfo, arrives but he is not recognized by anyone except Lisa. Rodolfo immediately notices Amina, provoking Elvino’s jealousy. In the next scene, Lisa shows Rodolfo his room in the inn and provocatively flirts with him. Soon after, Amina enters, sleepwalking. Rodolfo does not take advantage of this compromising situation but Lisa summons Elvino, who seeing Amina asleep in Elvino’s room, wrapped in his coat, draws his conclusions. In Act Two, despite protestations of her innocence, Elvino removes Amina’s engagement ring and decides to marry Lisa. This is too much for Theresa, Amina’s foster mother who reveals what happened the night before between Rodolfo and Lisa. Rodolfo also proclaims Amina’s innocence. Amina now appears, again sleepwalking. This time Elvino understands the situation and he takes her again as his bride.

This new production was directed and staged by Marco Arturo Marelli who transferred the setting to a spacious reception hall or foyer in a sanatorium in the Swiss Alps peopled by patients in wheelchairs and nurses. The set features large windows overlooking picturesque mountain vistas. Amina is played as a kitchen maid or one of the waitresses and her foster mother as the housekeeper of the inn. Lisa is the proprietor and cocktail waitress.

This startling conception worked satisfactorily but only to a point. Amina is not found by Elvino in a compromising position in Rodolfo’s bedroom; rather she is found asleep on the floor of the reception hall, making the motivation for Elvino’s misunderstanding confusing. Particularly dramatically effective is the moment at the end of Act One when Elvino opens up the door in a fury, allowing a very effective snow machine to blow in chunks of ice and snow, which covered much of the stage including a grand piano. This set the stage for the sleepwalking scene of Act Two. As conceived by Bellini and Romano, to the horror of the onlookers, Amina while sleepwalking negotiated a rickety narrow bridge. In the Marelli version, she negotiated the ice and snow in the reception hall, Elvino’s grand piano serving as a tightrope for her second sleepwalking scene. Much of the dramatic tension was lost.

The opera deserves to be performed, not for the plot or staging, but because of its beautiful bel canto music. In the role of Amina, the Slovakian soprano, L’ubica Vargicova was up to the task. She hit the high notes but did have some difficulties with the lower register. Hers is a light lyrical soprano, unlike recent singers of the role including Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland, but nevertheless, she was effective and enchanting. Her final aria “Ah non credea mirarti” (“I hadn’t thought I’d see you”) was most moving and poignant. Costuming by Dagmar Niefind-Marelli was also effective especially in this last aria. She opened dressed in a white slip, then, the stage lights dimmed, she disappeared and returned to the stage resplendent in a red velvet dress for her final cabaletta.

Ildebrando D’Arcangelo sang the role of Count Rudolfo, consistently showing a gleaming tone, with a beautiful warm timbre to his voice. Lisa, sung by coloratura Simina Ivan, and Teresa, by mezzo Nelly Boschkowa, both acquitted themselves admirably. Ivan in particular floated her phrases beautifully. Less successful was Gregory Kunde who sang the part of Elvino. He had problems with his higher register and on the night I heard him, his voice had a pronounced nasal quality.

The following night, I attended an electrifying performance of Richard Strauss’ Electra with Deborah Polaski in the title role. Polaski pulled out all the stops and delivered a spellbinding portrayal. She has a powerful voice of true dramatic proportions and when necessary, her voice projected magnificently above the orchestra, while her pianissimos were also caressed with beauty. She never allowed the audience to forget for one moment that her only aim was to avenge her father’s death.

Full accolades to the Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera which kept the audience riveted to their seats. Conducted by Stefano Ranzani in La Sonambulla and by Michael Boder in Electra, both performances were stunning. This great orchestra never performs badly but on occasion their playing can be routine and uninspired. When the chemistry is right, as on these two evenings, they cannot be surpassed. In fact, their playing was a gold standard to gauge future performances. #


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