Bellini: La sonnambula

Royal Opera

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 3 November 2011 3 stars

Eglise Gutiérrez and Michele Pertusi (Photo © Bill Cooper)Bellini's sleepwalking heroine isn't nineteenth-century opera's most famous mad woman – that honour must surely go to his rival Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor. But with two reputation- and even life-endangering nocturnal episodes to her name, Amina is certainly an alpine virgin with problems. For operatic Freudians she is another classic case to add to the list of singing hysterics (a terrifying chorus presided over jointly, of course, by Lucia and Lady Macbeth).

In Marco Arturo Marelli's 2002 production, now in its first revival, Amina's fragile mental state seems to have spread: the single set is a ballroom in an Alpine hotel-cum-sanatorium, with technicolor Alpine scenery framed by huge windows. The evening dress-clad inmates exude timeless (albeit slightly faded) privilege, with the occasional sartorial nod elsewhere to the early twentieth century; only the manager's lurid pencil skirt and heels – all fuchsia, naturally – seem to place us closer to 1960. The servants accompany their singing at Amina's engagement ceremony with camp synchronised swaying, conducted by a spoon-wielding head waiter, while a couple of fearsome looking nurses supervise from the balcony above. The entire cast seems to be teetering on the edge of nervous breakdown.

The idea is an interesting one in theory; but in practice the single setting makes nonsense of what is already – let's be honest – one of nineteenth-century opera's more mystifying plots. Given that the catalyst for the entire opera is the discovery of Amina's slumbering form in the bedroom of moustache-twirling Count Rodolfo (she has unwittingly sleepwalked there on the night of her engagement to Elvino), it is at best confusing to have her wander back into the ballroom and be discovered on its floor, with only the Count's fur coat to accuse her of wrongdoing.

There were, though, more serious problems. The opera's plot may be a little thin, but that shouldn't matter – this is bel canto, after all, and the key to success is in the name. Whereas in its previous incarnation the production boasted considerable vocal scaffolding (not least in Juan Diego Flórez's Elvino), the performance here was disappointing, sorely lacking the energy that a higher-powered cast might have provided.

Celso Albelo and Elena Xanthoudakis(Photo © Bill Cooper)As Amina, Eglise Gutiérrez provided some moments of real beauty – above all in the second of her nocturnal perambulations, which was gorgeously intimate despite the cavernous surroundings – but elsewhere her covered tone obliterated the words and risked becoming overwhelming in its intensity. Celso Albelo, in his ROH debut as Elvino, had no such difficulties with diction but needed much greater variety in dynamics and vocal colouring. As Lisa, Elena Xanthoudakis gave a fine dramatic performance, but too often lacked detail and melodic accuracy in her highly ornamented lines. In the smaller roles, Elisabeth Sikora was a suitably matronly foster mother for Amina, while Jihoon Kim (Alessio) and Elliot Goldie (Notary) both made reliable contributions.

By far the best vocal performance was from Michele Pertusi as the suave (but ultimately good-souled) Count: his rich, resonant bass was both enjoyable and dramatically convincing. Tellingly, he was also the only singer not completely in thrall to Daniel Oren's lacklustre direction from the pit. Under Oren's baton, ensemble was frequently tentative, sometimes disastrous, while tempi swung between tectonically-paced slow movements and racing pulses elsewhere. Unfortunately, though, it would have taken more than a couple of pacey cabalettas to prevent this performance from dragging its heels through the alpine snow.

By Flora Willson

Photos © ROH/Bill Cooper