|Hyesang Park and Kang Wang (photo by Nan Melville)
Initially, we felt a trifle disappointed that Juilliard Opera would be presenting Bellini's La sonnambula in a semi-staged version, hoping to see a production that would wipe from our memory the overly complicated production at the Metropolitan Opera. Within the first few minutes we recognized that the performances themselves created the set and the action, much the way that mountains create their own weather.
With flawless conducting, instrumentalism, and vocal performance, this was a knockout production of which Bellini would have been very proud. It is well known how important to Bellini was the casting.
Two star sopranos took the stage last night and showed their mettle as masters of bel canto style. As Amina, we heard Hyesang Park, who first impressed us exactly two years ago when she performed the famous aria from this selfsame opera "Ah, non credea mirarti" in a master class with Renée Fleming. Clearly she has been working on this role for some time and appeared to inhabit it with ease.
Here, she had the opportunity to portray the modest and innocent Amina, in contrast with the flirtatious Florilla she portrayed in Rossini's Il turco in Italia. She colored her bright voice just right for the role, sounding as young and innocent as the character is meant to be. Her command of the trills, swoops, turns and other embellishments was definitive. Her petite stature abetted the characterization.
Clarissa Lyons was equally impressive as Lisa. We were introduced to this statuesque beauty last month at one of Marilyn Horne's Spotlight Recitals (all these reviews are archived and available through the search bar). It was exciting to see what she can do on an opera stage with her expressive instrument, splendid technique, and fine acting.
We have always found Elvino to be an unlikeable character by dint of his inconstancy. He abandoned Lisa for Amina and was ready to abandon Amina for Lisa when he suspected Amina of infidelity. But his arias and duets are divine, so we can forgive his fickleness! Last night the excellent tenor Kang Wang turned in a fine performance. His instrument is larger and darker than one would expect in this role but he handled it beautifully and musically.
Much of the plot hangs on the shoulders of the mysterious Count Rodolfo who appears in the Swiss town where he grew up and manages to restore sanity to the superstitious townfolk who think the sleepwalking Amina is a ghost. He must convince Elvino that Amina's presence in his room was innocent, as indeed it was.
On the broad shoulders of bass Sava Vemič rested this task and he acquitted himself admirably, as he always does. He has a wonderful instrument that can only grow with the years and the physical presence to assume a variety of roles in that fach.
We have always read between the lines of Felice Romani's libretto. If the Count observes that Amina bears a strong resemblance to a woman he once loved, and if he restrains himself from taking advantage of her sleepwalking into his room at the inn, and if he defends her honor vigorously, isn't it possible that he is her father?
We have never read the play by Eugène Scribe nor have we seen the ballet on which the opera is based, so we have made up the backstory for ourselves. "The Count got a local girl pregnant and disappeared. The woman died in childbirth and Teresa adopted her". Seeing some of this "backstory" acknowledged in the program notes gave us quite a sense of satisfaction!
As Lisa's rejected suitor, bass-baritone Thesele Kemane managed to be both ridiculous and touching. We look forward to hearing more of him.
Tenor Miles Mykkanen excels at putting a personal spin on a great variety of roles and last night he took the role of the Notary which offered little room for characterization but space to appreciate his characteristic sound.
Mezzo-soprano Sara Couden sang the part of Teresa, Amina's caring and protecting mother.
On the podium we had the compelling conductor Speranza Scappucci whom we always admire. She is one of those conductors who uses her entire body to elicit what she wants from the orchestra and The Juilliard Orchestra gave her exactly what she wanted.
The balance was perfect, particularly between the orchestra and the off-stage musicians. The woodwinds made a particularly fine showing and cellist Philip Sheegog's duet with Ms. Park was exquisite. Maybe not as terrifying as Lucia's mad scene with the glass harp but replete with gorgeous harmonies.
As noted above, the artists created the set, so to speak, but Kate Ashton's lighting design surely helped things along. There was one dramatic shift of lighting that deftly underscored the shift in the plot.
David Paul was dramatic consultant.
The chorus of townsfolk supported the action beautifully.
There was a moment when the townsfolk onstage were riveted by the apparition of Lisa sleepwalking. Elvino, the Count, Lisa, and Theresa seemed spellbound. This was a perfect parallel to the audience's rapt attention to the stage.
This production was a product of the fruitful partnership between Juilliard Opera and The Metropolitan Opera's Lindemann Young Artist Development Program.
(c) meche kroop