The radiant Rachele Gilmore leads an outstanding “Sonnambula” at FGO
Florida Grand Opera extended its winning streak this season to three for three, putting on an outstanding production of Bellini’s La Sonnambula, a tale of love, sleepwalking and jealousy in a Swiss village, which opened Saturday night at the Arsht Center in Miami.
The star of the performance was the soprano Rachele Gilmore, a former FGO Young Artist from suburban Atlanta who has gone on to roles in the world’s leading opera houses. Dark-haired and petite, she sang with enormous vocal power, depth of feeling and beauty of tone, bringing the complete package to a role that requires both extreme virtuosity and a gift for the melodic long line.
Traditional Sonnambula productions portray the rustic Alpine setting with a village green, a country inn, and a mill with a water wheel. This one, directed by the great retired soprano Renata Scotto, does away with all that. Assembled in conjunction with Michigan Opera Theatre and used in FGO’s last Sonnambula staging with Leah Partridge, the set is dominated by a huge tree that becomes leafless and menacing to reflect Amina’s troubles. Rather than sleepwalking on a plank over the spinning mill wheel, she scales the tree, a pretty scary endeavor that brings her high over the stage on branches that don’t look all that thick. But unlike many attempts at operatic revisionism, this one was in the spirit of the work and kept the focus firmly where it should be, on the singers and the music.
The role of Amina not only requires the soprano to use every trick in the coloratura book, but for the singing to seem effortless, with no sign of strain impeding the flow of melody. Gilmore delivered on both counts, from the unforced high notes of the early aria Sopra il sen la man mi posa to the florid vocal embroidery that followed.
Gilmore enjoys some celebrity in the opera world for a 2009 performance at the Metropolitan Opera where she sang an A-flat above high C that many believe is the highest note ever sung on the Met stage. In her final aria Saturday night, the famous, elaborately ornamented Ah! non giunge uman pensiero, she sang a note that may well have been the highest ever heard at the Arsht Center opera house.
But as impressive as her speed and accuracy were, Gilmore’s greatest moment came not in one of the flashy soprano passages, but in the somber aria Ah! non credea mirarti. For this aria, she knelt in her white gown on the lip of the orchestra pit, spotlighted on the darkened stage, and expressed in heartfelt melody her sadness at the loss of her fiancée Elvino’s love.
As Elvino, the young American tenor Michele Angelini looked and sounded like a romantic leading man. The role is not a heroic one, but one for expressing love, jealousy, and love again. Angelini’s silken legato was made for the tender sentiments of the early part of the opera, as in Prendi, l’anel ti dono, when he gives Amina her engagement ring. Although his high notes showed some strain and effort, particularly in Act 2, he deftly handled the rapid ornaments of his arias, not allowing them to overwhelm the melodies.
Holding it all together from the orchestra pit was FGO music director Ramon Tebar. Winds gave a spirited account of Bellini’s sprightly melodies—some of them jarringly inappropriate for the dark emotions on stage, but that’s bel canto opera. The mournful horn melody as Amina gazes at her suffering former fiancée was affectingly and seamlessly performed. Strings excelled in the frantic little figures that decorate the accompaniment.
One of the opera’s greatest sections is the long ensemble passage after Amina is discovered in the room of a visiting count, where everyone is singing at once, expressing jealousy, disbelief and all sorts of conflicting emotions. Under Tebar’s baton, this was a wonderfully balanced and resonant performance, with the solo voices of Gilmore, Angelini and the others easily penetrating the surrounding sound, while remaining part of the ensemble.
The opera calls on the chorus to play a critical role, both musically and dramatically. Under chorus master John Keene, they delivered a superb performance—light, crisp and articulate in describing the “phantom” seen in the village, warm and well-balanced as the villagers express hope that the count will heed their pleas on behalf of Amina.
As Elvino’s former girlfriend Lisa, the soprano Hye Jung Lee delivered her own impressive coloratura performance. In a bright, well-focused voice, she handle the runs, trills and wide leaps from note to note of her Act 2 aria De’ lieti auguri a voi son grata.
When the bass Tom Corbeil first stepped on stage as Count Rodolfo, with his tall, lean figure and top hat, he resembled no one better than Abraham Lincoln. His stature gave weight to his performance as the returning son of the nobleman who used to lord over the village. Although his voice isn’t large, it had a gleaming edge to it that helped him avoid the tuneless rumblings you get from some basses.
As Amina’s stepmother Teresa, the mezzo-soprano Cynthia Cook brought concern, compassion and an attractive voice, if sometimes over-wide vibrato. The bass Adam Lau, who sang Alessio, revealed a sonorous voice in the Act 2 scene with Lisa, a voice that could be put to better use in the future than the thankless role of this sad sack who spends the opera whining for Lisa to marry him.
The production, coming after successful outings this season of La Bohème and The Magic Flute, provides further evidence of FGO’s recovery from the artistic depths of a few years ago. Can this be the same company that cast so many forgettable singers in leading roles, once fielded one of the most reliably mediocre orchestras in Florida, and produced an infamous version of Carmen in which the characters carried around chairs through much of the opera? There’s one more opera to go this season, Verdi’s La Traviata, but judging from the company’s work so far this season, that should be a performance worth catching.
Florida Grand Opera’s production of Bellini’s La Sonnambula repeats Tuesday, Friday and Sunday at the Arsht Center in Miami. fgo.org; 800-741-1010.
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Sun Feb 10, 2013
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