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Bel Canto Dream at the DOB

Deutsche Oper Berlin
09/28/2006 -  and 1, 4 October 2006
Vincenzo Bellini: La Sonnambula
Annick Massis (Amina), Juan Diego Florez (Elvino), Ditte Andersen (Lisa), Arutjen Kotchinian (Il Conte Rodolfo), Susanne Kreusch (Teresa), Hyung-Wook Lee (Alessio), J÷rg Sch÷rner (Un Notaro)
John Dew (Director), Thomas Gruber (Designer), Jose Manuel Vazquez (Costumes), Ulrich Paetzholdt (Chorus Director)
Daniel Oren (Conductor)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Deutsche Opera Berlin

All the required elements for bel canto performance, and Bellini in particular, come together in the DOB's La Sonnambula. A production from the Leipzig Opera, it opened last March with a different Amina and Elvino. For a mere three performances this season the Berlin audience can luxuriate in the free-floating singing of Annick Massis and Juan Diego Florez in the central roles, adroitly complemented by the dream-like conducting of Daniel Oren. At times it seems as if the two singers are engaged in a game of "How many trance-inducing pianissimi can we float - and how long can we hold them?" Only a Beckmesser could disapprove when it is accomplished this beautifully. This plot is often slighted for its slenderness, but when the changing emotions of the characters are as finely expressed the work engages as fully as high tragedy.

The bucolic Swissness of the setting is wittily established with a set dominated by the silhouettes of cows, while a hyper-realistic cow stands centre stage, its tail switching. Other amusing elements have to do with the villagers' titillated responses to the central drama, the actions of the narcoleptic notary and the secondary plot involving Lisa's romantic ventures. The comic rusticity of the milieu is an effective foil to the heartfelt tenderness of the central story - in fact the deft intermixing of comedy and sentiment is almost Chekhovian.

This is Annick Massis' debut at the DOB, and she has the audience in the palm of her hand from the start. For the Act II sleepwalking scene she must negotiate the narrow walkway at the front of the orchestra pit. This effectively puts her under an audience microscope - any deviation from total focus in either singing or acting would have been all too noticeable. Happily, there was none. Florez also maintained a constant central focus both musically and dramatically. He could simply rest on his endearing good looks, but instead acts with the voice, giving us the full gamut of Elvino's emotions. His voice gets covered in the few big ensemble moments, but this is a small price to pay for what amounts to an object lesson in bel canto lyricism. There is excellent vocal acting also from Ditte Andersen, the determined little minx who persistently sets her sights on the wrong man. Her Act II scena reveals a soubrette voice with Amina potential. Arutjen Kotchinian makes for a count who is noble in looks, deportment and voice.

The capacity audience stopped the show repeatedly with applause. At one point even the conductor put down his baton and joined in. The Berlin audience is used to working their way through a director's reinterpretation of a traditional work, but for this Sonnambula they willingly give themselves over to direct enjoyment of a cherishable performance.

Michael Johnson



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