Bellini: La sonnambula

Bartoli, Albelo, D'Arcangelo, Bengtson; Balthasar-Neumann Ensemble and Choir/Hengelbrock

Festspielhaus, Baden-Baden, 10 April 2008 4 stars

Cecilia Bartoli and Thomas Hengelbrock (Photo: Andrea Kremper)The fact that Cecilia Bartoli chose this concert performance of La Sonnambula as her debut in singing Amina, speaks highly for the accompanying Balthasar-Neumann Ensemble and its founder and director Thomas Hengelbrock. Both Bartoli and Hengelbrock, an eminent specialist in early opera, have long been much-loved contributors to the rising eminence of the Baden Baden Festspielhaus as an important European opera and concert venue.

Bellini was underestimated in his short lifetime by his peers, and even satirised by such an acute and witty observer as Heinrich Heine, who made fun of his somewhat foppish and Byronesque mannerisms. Both Wagner and Verdi spoke condescendingly of his lack of ability to make use of orchestration to add theatrical grandeur to his compositions, but both admired his unique ability to invent melodies of deep feeling, beauty and melancholy.

Bellini did not lack the ability to compose Grand Opera, but in La sonnambula he consciously reduced the orchestra to a supporting role, to act as colourful carpet on which his chosen prima donna, Giuditta Pasta, could turn her ravishing pirouettes. Although the opera has beautifully composed supporting roles, its success depends entirely on the performance of the prima donna.

In recent years Natalie Dessay seems to have come nearest to the ideal Amina. Her unique combination of a beautiful voice, coupled with superbly articulated coloratura technique and great musicianship, puts her Amina in a class of its own for many opera goers. I'm old enough to have heard the 'Malibran' of the early twentieth century, Galli-Gurci. Comparisons are misleading but I don't think that her steely artificiality and mechanical fireworks would come anywhere near to what we expect these days from our leading singers.

Celso Abelo, Cecilia Bartoli and Thomas Hengelbrock (Photo: Andrea Kremper)Thomas Hengelbrock and his ensemble specialise in performing on instruments appropriate to their wide repertoire, which ranges from the baroque to contemporary. All wind and brass instruments, for example, are either original specimens or carefully reconstructed modern reproductions. This went so far, here, that even the small timpani used were imitations - made by a specialist in Aldershot, a English town with a long military history - of early 19th Century British Army timpani, of the kind one can still see at military ceremonies, strapped on the back of horses. They were played with wooden sticks and this imparted a very individual sound, allowing almost soloistic importance to the timpanist.

The four natural horns kept up a wonderfully smooth background foundation. I was struck, in several orchestral passages, by the particularly sophisticated way in which the pulsating crotchets played together with the cellos and double basses were not simply reeled off, but played with a slight agogic delay before the first crotchet in each bar, and a slight slowing of the following ones. This imparted a chamber music-like lilt to what could normally run the risk of coming across as just a mechanical, 'oom-pah' sound.

The combination of period wind and brass instruments produced a distinctive, homogenous sound, far removed from the more glossy sound of modern instruments, and helped to maintain that feeling that one was listening to a performance of chamber music. Some beautifully played oboe and flute solos, in particular, closely matched the lines of the cabalettas they accompanied. While the cast collected to surround Cecilia Bartoli gave a creditable performance, it was she who dominated the evening with a superbly confident, moving and stylish performance. Her sustained melodic lines, the extraordinary variety of her coloratura techniques, many of which she is the originator, and, as it were, inventor, were a delight to listen to.

The vast audience, filling the Festspielhaus for both performances, often seemed to have been caught in a hushed silence, sharing individually and collectively her joy or despair. Untramelled by the necessity to act the role in a staged performance, Bartoli was free to shape and accompany her phrases with most eloquent movements of her arms and hands, almost as if she were conducting herself.

La Sonnambula (PHoto: Andrea Kremper)Celso Albelo as Elvino is more at home in Puccini than in Bellini. To stand up to and by the side of a Bartoli ideally takes a tenor with more vocal and stage presence and bel canto ability. To cope adequately with the notorious difficulties of this role is not enough, when partnering such an Amina. It would be hard for any tenor to match the brilliance, sophistication and beauty that Juan Diego Flórez has achieved in this role. A recording with Flórez and Bartoli is on its way and
were it not for the fact that, on the very day of the performance, his wedding to his German bride was taking place in Peru, we might have been able to enjoy the partnership live in Baden-Baden. Ildebrando D'Arcangelo, with a dark and powerful voice, sounded more of a heroic Verdian bass and could have given Rodolfo a more gentle and lyrical character. Maria Bengtson as Lisa also took advantage of not having to act as a frustrated loser and with her two confidently sung major solo arias - during which Bartoli was off stage - and her very attractive stage presence, she was able to win the hearts of the audience in her own right.

The orchestral accompaniment was brisk yet sensitive throughout. The well prepared and disciplined Balthasar-Neumann Choir of only 28 members reacted to every hint and gesture from a very alert Thomas Hengelbrook, who never allowed a moment of stagnation. There must have been very thorough preparation of this performance, something evident in the particularly close relationship between Hengelbrock and Bartoli. This found a striking expression in the similarity of their body language, despite the fact that they weren't in visual contact, in shaping those mellifluous phrases, something which made this Sonnambula such a warm and joyous experience.

After Amina's final and radiantly sung bravura aria, there was a spontaneous explosion of prolonged applause, in which I was also happily and irresistibly engulfed. With charming and not feigned modesty, Cecilia Bartoli shared with all the performers this out-flowing of gratitude.

A recording is due out later in the year with Bartoli, Juan Diego Flórez, Ildebrando D'Arcangelo, and Alessandro de Marchi conducting the Orchestra La Scintilla, Zürich.

By Francis Shelton