Florida Grand Opera is currently presenting an excellent production of Vincenzo Bellini's Bel Canto opera, "La Sonnambula" or The Sleepwalker in the Ziff Ballet and Opera House at the Adrienne Arsht Center.
Bel canto is an Italian phrase meaning beautiful singing, and operas from the Bel Canto era (roughly 1800 to 1850) tend to be very light on plot and storyline and very heavy on vocal gymnastics. "La Sonnambula" is no exception to this rule.
The story, such as it is, concerns Amina, a young village maiden who is in love and about to be married to Elvino. The other people who live in her village have never noticed that Amina is a sleepwalker. Among the villagers is local innkeeper, Lisa, who is secretly in love with Elvino.
A visiting nobleman interrupts the young couple's engagement ceremony and takes a room for the night at the inn. Of course, in her sleepwalking, Amina is discovered in the Count's room much to the joy of the envious Lisa and the chagrin of the overly jealous Elvino. After many machinations and lots of singing, the happy couple end up back together and get married.
In the role of Amina, soprano Rachele Gilmore is absolutely divine. On top of her supermodel good looks, her high notes are crystal clear, her florid coloratura passages are pitch perfect and her stage presence is unsurpassed. She is an up-and-coming soprano of the highest caliber and is on her way to opera super-stardom.
Amina is an excellent role to show off the beauty and power of her voice and the flawlessness of her vocal technique. Her performance of the second act aria "Ah! Non credea mirarti" was tender and touching and her interpretation of the following cabaletta "Ah! Non giunge" had all of the vocal fireworks you could wish for.
The role of Elvino is quite possibly one of the stupidest, most unsympathetic tenor roles in the opera repertoire. He is consumed by his jealousy and makes bad choice after bad choice. Not only is this role vocally challenging with extremely florid passages and a large amount of repeated high notes, but it is especially challenging from an acting standpoint. Tenor Michele Angelini handles all of these challenges without a single stumble.
Angelini's voice is stunningly beautiful. He is a perfect example of a tenor leggiero. His high notes ring true and clearly and he handles the coloratura passages of the role with ease and lightness. He has classic Italian-American good looks and is a perfect complement to Gilmore's Amina.
Soprano Hye Jung Lee plays the role of the envious innkeeper, Lisa. Lee was recently seen, less successfully, as Papagena in Florida Grand Opera's production of "Die Zauberflöte." While her performance in the Mozart opera didn't seem to suit her voice, she brought vocal fireworks and clarion high notes to create a vocally perfect interpretation of Lisa. Her rendition of the 2nd act aria 'De' lieti auguri a voi son grata' with its fantastically complicated trills and coloratura passages earned her well-deserved "bravas!" from the opening night audience.
The only flaw in this near perfect production is the set for the last scene of the second act. Set and Costume Designer Carlo Diappi created a lovely set for the first scene of the first act centered around a green and leafy tree. The second scene of the first act with the stylized room of an inn was also lovely.
A set issue at the start of the second act jolted me into reality, when suddenly the beautiful leafy trees became barren and bare. The opera takes place over a 24-hour time period so it was a little strange that winter seemed to hit so fast.
Another problem was in the final scene of Act Two. Traditionally, Amina sleepwalks across a high bridge suspended over the stage. For this production, however, Diappi decided that it would be appropriate for her to climb a barren tree and sleepwalk precariously across its limbs. The ridiculousness of this earned several inappropriate chuckles from the audience.
Once Amina was safely down, the decision was made to noisily lower a painted drop covered in a forest scene with an inexplicable white door in the middle of it. I understand that this was basically a device to effect a quick costume change for Amina, but I believe with some re-imagining this could have been achieved in a more graceful and quieter manner.
At the end of the day, however, operas like "La Sonnambula" are not about fantastic sets and beautiful costumes: they are about the glory of the human voice and this production certainly offers that to the audience.
The caliber of this particular cast is stellar and no amount of misguided scenic elements could detract from that. It was, by far, the best evening of operatic singing that South Florida has witnessed in many years.
"La Sonnambula" runs through Feb. 17 at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd. Miami, FL 33132. For info or tickets, call 800-741-1010 or visit www.FGO.org