Bellini: La Sonnambula

Cecilia Bartoli, Juan Diego Florez; Orchestra La Scintilla/Alessandro De Marchi (Decca 4781084)

16 November 2008 4 stars

Sonnambula BartoliIf the combination of Cecilia Bartoli and Juan Diego Flórez looks good on paper, their new recording of La sonnambula proves that it sounds even better. When singing together, Bartoli and Flórez almost seem to have the potential to become a bel canto alternative to Villazón and Netrebko, a relationship based on intuition and special communication.

This Sonnambula is the first to be performed on period instruments and is also unique in being the first to feature a mezzo-soprano in the title role. While preparing for her previous album, Maria, which was based on the career of the nineteenth-century diva Maria Malibran, it seems that Bartoli became curious about the fact that the two leading early interpreters of the opera were mezzos (Giuditta Pasta and Malibran).

In the twentieth century the role of Amina was appropriated by the big sopranos of the day and the piece tended to be transposed upwards, but Bartoli discovered that most of the original score lies well for a mezzo.

Three numbers (the end of Act 2, Scene 2) have been brought down for this recording, but the rest is done as written, and it makes for a fascinating performance. Bartoli's rich middle range undulates around Bellini's lengthy vocal lines, while the strength of her top notes allows her to nail the dramatic moments with excitement. Everything she does is undeniably beautiful; that said, I do find her approach to one or two items on the fussy side, notably her solo in the first act and the duet with Rodolfo near the beginning of the second scene. Occasionally, she sings a little too much under her breath for my taste, but the coloratura passages are astounding, not least the cabaletta 'Sovra il sen la man mi posa' where her illustration of Amina's palpitating heartbeat is remarkably vivid.

Sonnambula BartoliNevertheless, it's the duets with Flórez that are the noteworthy parts of the set. His arrival as Elvino in 'Perdona, o mia diletta' shows off his brilliant, radiant sound, always fresh and easy; to me, his achievement is greater here than in his recent 'Arias for Rubini' disc. The first Elvino-Amina duet, with pulsing chorus in the background, is an instant winner, instinctive and spontaneous in its pacing and accentuation, while their second encounter at the end of the first scene shows off their technical fearlessness; their innate connection is especially apparent during the highly decorated a cappella cadenza at the close. In the second act, too, they are able to mix both internalised emotions and public declamation when appropriate. As far as I'm concerned, their combined achievement far outshines that of Natalie Dessay and Francesco Meli on the recent Virgin Classics set.

It's disappointing, though, that a better supporting cast wasn't assembled. Ildebrando D'Arcangelo is rather stolid a Rodolfo, and the contributions of Gemma Bertagnolli as Lisa, Liliana Nikiteanu as Teresa and Peter Kalman as Alessio are decidedly provincial. Subtle, refined performers such as Bartoli and Flórez need collaborators of the same calibre, but they just don't have them here.

However, the orchestral playing is outstanding. Alessandro De Marchi stimulates an exhilarating performance from the Orchestra La Scintilla. The string sound has real bite and attack, while the woodwinds have a more distinctive timbre and the period horns make their mark during the entrance of Amina in Act 2; it all helps create the atmosphere of the opera. Like Evelino Pidò on the Dessay recording, De Marchi uses the new critical edition of the score by Alessandro Roccatagliati and Luca Zoppelli, restoring the original keys and cleaning up the orchestration and other details.

The lack of quality in the casting of the comprimario roles notwithstanding, nobody with an interest in period performance practice of the bel canto repertoire will want to miss this new release, while Bartoli and Flórez fans have much to be thankful for.

By Dominic McHugh