Natalie Dessay's many fans have a double treat this month, with two recordings which document her voice in contrasting repertoires. The baroque disc of Bach's Magnificat and Handel's Dixit Dominus is in my view a triumph, especially where Dessay is concerned. But this new recording of Bellini's mature masterpiece La sonnambula, while not vastly disappointing, is not on quite the same level.
One of the problems is the conducting of Evelino Pid˛, which varies from exciting and vibrant to dull and stodgy. For instance, track 18 of CD 1, 'Oh ciel! Che tento?', is marked Allegro moderato in the score but here crawls along, an issue not helped by some excessive mid-phrase rallentandi. I also find the chorus and quintet which follow this number rather ponderous, despite some exquisite singing. These and other numbers aren't merely slow: they lack a sense of purpose and momentum. In Act II the problem continues with a laboured account of 'Vedi, o madre', but at the same time Pid˛ draws some wonderful colours from the Orchestre et Choeurs de l'OpÚra de Lyon and the stretta to the first act is thrilling. Again, I find 'E fia pur vero' and 'Signor? che creder deggio?' (both marked Allegro moderato) in the second act rather slow, and overall I wish he would approach the piece a little less gingerly; some of my issues with the singing might well stem from the lack of drive from the conductor.
Dessay herself produces some lovely tone in places, not least in the concertato 'D'un pensiero' in the Act I finale, and some will be totally won over by her portrayal of Amina. But for me it comes with the huge caveat that hers is not a particularly Italianate voice. I find that the middle of her voice is not as full and even as it might be, for instance in the cavatina 'Come per me sereno'; the cabaletta to this number is not as spotlessly tuned as it might be, nor is the coloratura as immaculate as was once the case with this artist. Occasionally the vibrato is too fast, where she can sound like she is singing around the note rather than through the middle of it, and at times I just wish she would sing with a straightforward, smooth legato. Dessay has a wonderful sense of drama, and she brings something of the otherworldliness of her Covent Garden Ophelia to this part as well, but having read rave reviews of this recording I have come away disappointed.
Francesco Meli's Elvino is also a partial rather than complete success. Sumptuous tone, such as in 'Prendi: l'anel ti dono' in Act I, is let down by problematic tuning, for instance when he struggled through the passaggio of his voice in the opening of 'Son geloso del zefiro errante'. Later on in this duet, however, he sings a breathtaking sotto voce scale to a high C in his falsetto voice, and both he and Dessay bring passion to the number. His entries at 3'56 of track 9 on CD 2 and at 1'40 on track 12 find him having intonation difficulties, but in general he brings plenty of colour to the role.
As Rodolfo, Carlo Colombara has a secure, lyrical voice and is well inside the notes of his cavatina, for example. But I find the characterisation somewhat bland, making little of the words. Again, perhaps this is a result of the conducting. Solid if undistinguished support comes from Paul Gay (Alessio) and Gordon Gietz (Un notaro); Sara Mingardo (Teresa) and JaŰl Azzaretti (Lisa) are outstanding.
With its pastoral tinta and grand ensembles, La sonnambula has much to recommend it. The writing for the heroine, Amina, is amongst the most exquisite in Bellini's output: who can resist those long melodic lines, which even Wagner admired so much? However, it takes a conductor who can match a sensitivity for colour and detail with energy and a propulsive action to do full justice to the work, not to mention singers who can sing with perfect intonation and wide-ranging expression. I'm not sure this new recording ticks either box entirely; at times the performance is slightly boring and seems almost to come to a standstill. Since Juan Diego Flˇrez and Cecilia Bartoli are soon to release a new recording of the work, as well as appearing in the opera at Covent Garden, I think it's safer to resist this Virgin recording unless you're a die-hard Dessay fan.