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Vincenzo Bellini: La sonnambula
Cecilia Bartoli (Amina), Juan Diego Flórez (Elvino), Ildebrando D’Arcangelo (Rodolfo), Gemma Bertagnolli (Lisa), Liliana Nikiteanu (Teresa), Peter Kálmán (Alessio), Javier Camarena (Notary), Chorus of the Zurich Opera, Orchestra La Scintilla, Alessandro De Marchi (conductor)
Recorded Evangelisch-reformierte Kirchgemeinde, Zurich (June-July 2007, September 2008) – 134’11
L’Oiseau Lyre/Decca Ref. # 478 1084 – Booklet and Libretto in English, French, German, and Italian

Complete opera recordings are all too rare these days, and few recent ones have engendered so much anticipatory excitement as this new account of Bellini’s La sonnambula, a project conceived for Cecilia Bartoli as part of her exploration of the repertoire associated with the great 19th century diva, Maria Malibran. It was well worth the wait.

The assumption of the opera’s titular heroine by a mezzo-soprano is not without precedent, even beyond Malibran’s time to our own; Frederica von Stade made good capital of it just a few years back, in fact. There has been no commercial recording of the concept however, and if nothing else this set – also the first to present the autograph score note-complete and performed by a period orchestra - is to be valued for its alternative take on a beloved standard. Purists need not be concerned. The so-called “Malibran version”, despite a minor tweak here and there, is hardly a distinct version at all; as with most bel canto roles, the writing for Sonnambula’s Amina is largely grounded in middle voice, allowing the soprano virtuoso to embellish upwards as desired – or in the mezzo’s case, to creatively cavort about down below. Those who relish the pyrotechnical aspect of bel canto performance may miss the accustomed interpolations in alt; as heard here however, the score revels in a pristine beauty that is satisfying in of itself, and brings great reward in appreciation of the composer’s legendary ability for sustained, arching melody.

Though generally considered a prima donna opera, the male contingent is particularly satisfying here. Many will undoubtedly gravitate toward this recording for its tenor love-interest, the Elvino of Juan Diego Flórez. Those few who simply do not care for an authentic tenore di grazia and long for the more robust vocalism offered by other recorded accounts, may not be convinced by his performance; though in truth, his more sparely focused sound is likely far more authentically what Bellini had in mind while composing. For most listeners however, it would not be exaggerating to say that Mr. Florez is quite possibly the finest exponent of this most difficult of bel canto tenor assignments on record. The tone is laser-bright and honeyed, and used with great intelligence and sensitivity. "Prendi: l’anel ti dono" is beautifully phrased, he proves himself a most amenable partner (the duets are transposed in concession to the diva), and the entire reading is shaded with ineffable grace. Rodolfo really does not have that much to work with, but Ildebrando D’Arcangelo’s special brand of erotically-tinged vocal velvet renders him with such charm, one can easily understand why a young girl might be suspected of finding a way to wander into his boudoir – who wouldn’t when the kindly nobleman is this appealing?

But one generally goes to Sonnambula for the Amina - which brings us to Bartoli herself. The Italian mezzo has been a somewhat controversial singer from the early days of her international career; some mavens have never fully responded to her message, tending instead to uselessly blather on about aspirated coloratura and funny faces. To my ears however, Bartoli is one of the most exciting singers of the modern era; one who embodies the spirit of music with the sort of rapier-quick intelligence and joyful spontaneity dreamed of, but rarely encountered in modern operatic performance. It is precisely a lack of such spontaneous musical response however, that the formidable diva’s fans might find just a trifle disappointing here. This is not to say that the raison d'être for this new Sonnambula’s is also an Achilles Heel; hers is an impressive performance by any standard - but there is a vague feeling of contrivance, and an occasional employment of interpretive sighs and coos that ultimately do the diva few favors. She is very closely miked as well, which contributes to what appears a careful negotiation of resources that is rather at odds with the joyful abandon one associates with her best work. That said, it is a rare delight to hear the text tossed off with such natal ease, and the pianissimo singing is exquisite. "Ah! non credea", taken at a very leisurely clip, is really quite ravishing; "Ah! Non giunge" then brings some newly-imagined ornamentation, rather more adventuresome than that utilized in her account of this music on the recent Malibran recital. Few singers can touch Bartoli in the area of sheer expressivity – nobody does a Baroque rage aria quite like her – but Amina’s gentler mien is ultimately perhaps not the most natural vehicle for her particular vocal persona. Still, she is who she is, and the recording reveals a facet of the beloved singer’s artistry and prodigious musical curiosity that many will treasure.

Gemma Bertagnolli’s Lisa is a more vital presence than usual, the soprano bringing a first tier voice to a decidedly seconda duenna role. Liliana Nikiteanu, Peter Kálmán, and Javier Camarena all contribute positively as Teresa, Alessio, and the Notary, respectively.

Alessandro De Marchi’s account of the score, deftly rendered by the Orchestra la Scintilla, is meltingly sentimental and obviously well considered – one might prefer a generally brisker approach, but the conductor’s more leisurely account compliments the work’s delicate pastel beauty gracefully. Some will object to the addition of a rather quaintly tinkling set of pastoral bells heard throughout in the background, but it isn’t particularly intrusive, once adjusted to. The recording is crisply mastered and nicely revelatory of orchestral detail, though the individual voices are a bit aggressively forward in the overall soundscape. Choral forces are excellent.

The booklet is terrific, and maintains the sort of slightly bent, affectionately teasing humor that characterized the visual presentation of the Malibran set. The diva is captured in a number of lovely shots suggestive of the protagonist’s somnambulism, though it must be said that some of the artwork, with its silhouetted Bonsai-like trees and little footbridges as might be seen on a Japanese fan, conjures up more thought of Butterfly than Bellini, but it is still delightful to the eye. Translations and essays are quite well prepared.

All said and done, a most enjoyable account of a beloved score, beautifully played and presented, and displaying its nominal star in fine, if not superlative form. Bartoli fans will absolutely want this – Bellini’s should find much to admire as well.

Mark Thomas Ketterson




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