La Sonnambula


Terry Ponick’s review of La Sonnambula from The Washington Times
David Shengold’s review of La Sonnambula from Gay City News
Anne Midgette’s review from The Washington Post
Anne Midgette’s blog post from The Washington Post ‘Classical Beat’
Emily Cary’s review from The Washington Examiner

“LA SONNAMBULA’: Washington Concert Opera’s Glorious Bel Canto”

By Terry Ponick, The Washington Times

“The Washington Concert Opera got its short season off to a smashing start this past Sunday afternoon at GWU’s Lisner Auditorium with an absolutely dazzling performance of Bellini’s bel canto opera, La Sonnambula (“The Sleepwalker”). Not heard in DC, we are told, since the mid-1980s, WCO’s kick-off performance brought this feisty little company back into the bel canto repertoire for which they’re most cherished in this city.

Actually, WCO had a little inadvertent competition from WNO (Washington National Opera) this weekend as the latter company opened its own season with a fully staged and entirely different production of Donizetti’s Anna Bolena at the Kennedy Center. WNO’s performances are fully staged, of course, while WCO presents the music and singing with little in the way of props, focusing purely on the score. This approach makes WCO’s tickets more affordable. But it also enables this company to highlight phenomenal singers that, for various reasons, you might never get a chance to see in a full production.

Possessing a flimsier, less dramatic plot than Bolena and set in the placid Swiss countryside, Sonnambula is a more delicate, nuanced score that highlights Bellini’s greatest compositional strengths—beautiful, long-lasting melodic excursions along with stratospheric vocal leaps. These latter bits of showmanship, however, are in themselves rather tasteful as they occur only at infrequent intervals, saving the singer from wearing out, and the listener from being too agitated as he or she awaits these short but important moments of vocal truth.

Sonnambula’s tissue-thin plot involves a pair of dueling young women—well, one of them, the innkeeper Lisa (soprano Maureen McKay), is doing the dueling—who both have fallen in love with the same guy, Elvino (tenor René Barbera), who’s described as a “wealthy young landowner.”

The winner in the Elvino sweepstakes is the demure, self-effacing Amina (soprano Eglise Guttiérez). Much beloved by the townspeople, she’s a onetime orphan who was adopted by the mill owner Teresa (mezzo-soprano Madeline Gray).

In disguise, Count Rodolfo (baritone Ben Wager) drops into town after many years’ absence in order to move back into the ancestral castle he’s inherited. But Lisa sees through his disguise in a millisecond—as do the villagers—and offers to put him up at her inn for the night since it’s already too late to get to the distant castle that evening.

While ensconced in his room, he’s visited by a “ghost” that’s been frightening villagers, who actually turns out to be the hapless Amina. For it is she who is this opera’s eponymous sleepwalker. Compounding this strange situation in the Count’s room, she unluckily falls back to sleep. Which allows Lisa to discover her rival’s “compromising” situation and torpedo her impending marriage to Elvino by broadcasting Amina’s alleged transgression throughout the town. Not to worry, though. Things all get sorted out in the end, and the “nice” girl gets to live happily ever after.

What we ourselves end up with is a nice little domestic comedy-farce. Its amusing plot offered the composer ample opportunity to set down charming, romantic solos, duets, and ensembles. These are punctuated by a few pages here and there of exciting martial music as the story’s various dramatic plot turns come to the fore. The entire work is an easy to listen to delight. Sunday’s audience simply loved it to death for all the right reasons: they heard gorgeous music graciously performed by singers unafraid to mine each exquisite line’s emotional core.

Key soloists in this work were our heroine, Amina, her suitor Elvino, her rival Lisa, and finally, the befuddled but good-natured Count. The singers performed each part with lightness and grace, and the WCO orchestra under the baton of Maestro Antony Walker—who serves as the company’s artistic director—accompanied them with their accustomed sensitivity. But they also let things rip during moments when they themselves were center stage.

As Elvino, Mr. Barbera was most impressive, boasting a clarion tenor whose authority was unmistakable at every entrance. Clean and unencumbered by any affectation, his instrument always rang true and his vocal lines were remarkable for their precise and gracious phrasing.

As Amina, Ms. Gutiérrez, whom we had not heard prior to this performance, proved to be a treasure as well. Given the most taxing music in the score, she generally navigated both simple and wickedly complex passages with the greatest of ease, providing many of the most thrilling moments for an enthusiastic WCO audience.  Her voice did desert her for two or three brief moments during her frequent excursions to the top, and her face betrayed a bit of self-irritation at this during the curtain call.

But she needn’t have worried. The audience easily forgave those ephemeral millisecond lapses, focusing instead on the extraordinary, intense artistry she radiated throughout her performance. And this is live music, after all, with no second takes to hide behind as in a recording studio.

As Lisa, Ms. McKay proved more delightful than malevolent as Bellini’s designated villain. She really has nothing against Amina other than the fact that she herself wanted to marry Elvino. Ms. McKay vocally alternates an almost syrupy charm when she’s pleased with herself, and an almost adolescent petulance when things go the other way. We recall her fine performance as Johanna in Wolf Trap Opera’s Sweeney Todd some time back, and it’s clear that she has continued to grow as a fine young artist whose career is now well on its way.

Ben Wager clearly had fun Sunday in his role as Count Rodolfo. Rodolfo, as the town’s returning ruler, is clearly in a position of authority, but seems to gently bungle it at every turn as he’s ensnared into the town’s real and imagined ghost story which complicates the upcoming nuptials of Amina and Elvino. Mr. Wager’s acting skills—even in concert opera—combined with excellent phrasing and diction and a steady vocal attack, lent to his character a nearly perfect balance graciousness, forthrightness, and frustration, burnishing the light, comic moments of this opera.

While the role of Teresa is a small one, Madeleine Gray brought to it a fine dignity that allowed her character to believably take some difficult situations in hand and bring her confused daughter, fiancé, and others to a satisfying denouement.

The worst thing about Sunday’s performance is that it’s over, which forces us to wait until next April 7, when WCO will perform Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda in its second and final performance of this season. We’ll be there. But in the meantime we’ll continue to bask in the sheer, remembered joy of this company’s wonderfully realized La Sonnambula.”



By David Shengold, Gay City News

Like the Metropolitan Opera, both of Washington’s principal opera companies began their seasons with works from the bel canto repertory. The results were pleasing, though uneven.

Washington Concert Opera, founded by Stephen Crout in 1986, plays a role in the capital’s operatic life similar to Opera Orchestra of New York hereabouts. It has presented dozens of less familiar works with a wide range of rising and current stars. WCO tends these days to perform two works per year, almost always in George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium (easy to reach by the Metro from Union Station — I saw more than one day-tripping New Yorker in the matinee audience for “La sonnambula” on September 16).

The performance of Bellini’s splendid opera semiseria was dedicated to the memory of the late Evelyn Lear, one of the company’s “godmothers.” What struck one above all was the high quality and stylistic understanding of Antony Walker’s conducting, a tonic after hearing so many indifferently led bel canto traversals in New York, Munich, and Houston in the past year.

Eglise Gutiérrez is already a practiced, highly effective Amina; her performance was the more communicative and impressive for being virtually “off-book” when most of her colleagues stood riveted to their music stands. Gutiérrez commands a spectacular, individual. and ravishingly deployed voice, and is streets ahead of the women the ever-mystifying Met casts in her repertory.

Amidst all the glorious sounds she made were a scattered few less-than-comfortable attacks on forte high notes. As her voice seems to be expanding, this might suggest an eventual move away from high coloratura parts to such roles as Luisa Miller and Giovanna d’Arco.

My other complaint about Gutiérrez’s work here was that she ornamented first verses of things — including the sublime “Ah non credea mirarti” — so that one didn’t get to hear Bellini’s original melodies in their pristine state, which seems a mistake. Most of her ornamentation was highly impressive, with just few moments of misfire, like a crop of stunning staccati in “Ah, non giunge” followed by some that just refused to emerge cleanly. Still, hers was a memorable performance.

So was that of Tejano tenor René Barbera as Elvino — a treacherously high-lying part, for once approached from a position of security and strength. Barbera dispatched the music with fine musicianship, a consistently pleasant sound even up to high D, and a command of dramatic nuance; all that was lacking was a sense of dramatic urgency staged performances of “Sonnambula” should supply. This tenor has a great deal to offer the opera world.

Ben Wager, like Guttierez a graduate of Philadelphia’s Academy of Vocal Arts, showed improvement over his conservatory Rodolfo, with his solid if sometimes too highly placed bass-baritone affording more agility and smoother legato line. He made a handsome and expressive figure onstage.

Maureen McKay gave a more-substantial-sounding-than-usual Lisa, acting Amina’s minx-like rival in admirable detail. Like Wager, she has grown as an artist from her overseas experiences. Madeleine Gray made a conventional, somewhat melodramatic Teresa. Someone should have let the tall mezzo know that leaving her music stand fully up even when she wasn’t singing would block many spectators’ view of the principals.

WCO’s season continues with Donizetti. On Sunday, April 7, at 6 p.m., Walker leads Georgia Jarman and Brenda Harris — two well-contrasted, persuasive, style-informed divas too little seen in New York — in “Maria Stuarda.”



By Anne Midgette, The Washington Post

“The Washington Concert Opera probably didn’t mean to show up the Washington National Opera when it scheduled Bellini’s “La Sonnambula” on Sunday afternoon at Lisner Auditorium, the day after the WNO opened its season with Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena.”

It’s true the two operas have a lot in common. Both are staples of the bel canto repertoire; both premiered in the 1830-31 season at the same theater in Milan (“Bolena” in December, “Sonnambula” in March). Their librettos were written by the same poet, Felice Romani, and the leads were first played by the same singers, the soprano Giuditta Pasta and the tenor Giovanni Battista Rubini.

But though the similarities could have been foreseen, it’s doubtful anyone anticipated that the WCO’s cast, point for point, would be so much better than the WNO’s.

In fairness, “Sonnambula” is an easier opera to stage. “Anna Bolena” was a breakthrough opera for Donizetti, with big, passionate, dramatic roles; “Sonnambula” has a soap-bubble plot that doesn’t bear much scrutiny at all. (Boy and girl are in love; girl wanders into count’s bedroom at night; boy decides she’s cheated on him; oh, wait, girl is a sleepwalker! All is forgiven!) What it does have is glorious music: Bellini’s melodic gift made him one of the most beloved composers of the 19th century (Richard Wagner, for one, was a big fan). The title role isn’t exactly easy, but it’s easier than Anna Bolena, and the auxiliary roles get pretty arias that are less vocally taxing than “Anna Bolena’s” big duets.

Both the WCO and the WNO fielded strong sopranos with international careers but with voices so different it’s hard to believe the same singer originally sang both roles. Where Sondra Radvanovsky showed a big, warm, clarion voice as Anna Bolena, Eglise Gutierrez, who sang Amina in “La Sonnambula,” was all about floating pianissimos, gentle clouds of sound, the dewdrops-and-roses school of bel canto, matching her diaphanous pink dress. Her performance was gorgeous, apart from a few times when she failed to get a high note out — possibly due to fatigue undermining her breath support, and never at a real climax.

Where the WCO excelled was at putting together a cast to match its soprano. Elvino, the tenor lead, is a bit of a loser — everyone in Switzerland thinks his girlfriend is a model of purity, and he still finds a way to be jealous? — but Rene Barbera found the character’s inner appeal, with an assured, warm voice, lusty high Cs, and a stage presence evoking familiar tenor tropes (the solid body, the dark beard, the sense of humor). As Lisa, who keeps the local inn and has designs on Elvino herself, the soprano Maureen McKay showed considerable coloratura chops.

Ben Wager was a slightly weaker link as Count Rodolfo, who turns up in his childhood home with such a flimsy incognito that even the credulous Swiss villagers of the chorus need only a couple of scenes to figure out who he is. His voice was pleasant but imprecise, possibly because the role lies awfully low for someone who bills himself as a baritone. Madeleine Grey, as Amina’s foster mother, and Matthew Osifchin, as Lisa’s would-be lover, were both adequate if not outstanding. But casting the throwaway role of the Notary with a tenor as substantial as Rolando Sanz amounts to a kind of showing off: Few companies can field even one good tenor, let alone two.

One reason the whole thing sparkled is that conductor Antony Walker, the WCO’s music director, approaches music with the kind of spark and verve that made some of us fall in love with it in the first place. He got a kind of precision out of the WCO orchestra that the WNO, on opening night, couldn’t quite muster. He also actively supported the singers, or got out of their way — for instance, at the end of Gutierrez’s and Barbera’s exquisite duet at the end of the first scene, in which they engage in a series of a capella vocal arabesques simply to say good night.

This season, the WCO returns to the bel canto canon from which it has strayed in recent seasons. Its other performance this season is another of Donizetti’s Tudor operas, “Maria Stuarda.” Of course, it can’t really compete with the WNO, which offers a full season of fully staged operas. But — as it did in 2008 when it put up Donizetti’s “Maria Padilla” against the WNO’s “Lucrezia Borgia” — it can sure remind the other company how it can be done.”


“LA SONNAMBULA: Bel Canto Weekend”

By Anne Midgette, The Washington Post, ‘The Classical Beat’

“So the Washington Concert Opera saw the Washington National Opera’s “Anna Bolena,” and raised them by a better all-around cast with ”La Sonnambula” on Sunday afternoon. “Anna Bolena” wasn’t bad, but ”Sonnambula” was better, and it’s a shame that you can’t have both running simultaneously through October to give audiences here a real taste of bel canto style.

The comparison between Eglise Gutierrez and Sondra Radvanovsky demonstrates that bel canto style leaves room for a huge range of voices: they bridged the spectrum from soft and floating (Gutierrez) to clarion (Radvanovsky). Gutierriez is the better bel canto stylist, although I’m sure some audience members won’t forgive her the few notes she missed on Sunday (they weren’t sharp or flat or cracked; they just didn’t come out). But she excelled at all the ornament, piling on flounces and high pianissimos like mounds of frosting, where Radvanovsky was all about dramatic line (more appropriate to her character).

Very few of you reading this are likely to have attended both shows. But I’m always curious to hear opinions about bel canto singing: who do you think does it well, and what is it that you look for, or rather listen for, in a voice?”



By Emily Cary, The Washington Examiner

“Tenor Rene Barbera makes his Washington Concert Opera debut on Sunday as Elvino in Bellini’s “La Sonnambula.” Fresh from performing the role of Tamino in Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” at Chicago’s Ravinia Festival, he is eager to make his Washington debut.

“This is the first time I’ve sung this role,” he said. “I’ve always loved singing bel canto music; the higher the notes the better. Elvino fits my personality because I can be a little bit of a hot head when upset. It’s easy to understand why he is furious to learn that his sweetheart, Amina, is found in another man’s chambers. No wonder. Who would believe an excuse like sleepwalking?”

Barbera already has accumulated many prestigious honors. In 2008, he won the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and was invited to become a member of San Francisco Opera’s Merola Opera Program that same year. Gianna Rolandi, the director of Lyric Opera of Chicago Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center, was so impressed by his gorgeous bel canto range at the Met auditions that she invited him to become a member of her company. He has sung major roles there every year since 2009.

“The first time I ever heard it was at a senior recital in college when I was going through a bad breakup,” he said. “It was a gorgeous, heartbreaking song that helped me get through the pain. The one I sang at the Operalia was only the second zarzuela piece I’ve sung in a concert.”

Barbera’s career choice happened by chance. He had enjoyed singing in his high school choir in San Antonio and was about to begin computer studies in Colorado, when he changed his mind and applied to the University of Texas in San Antonio to become a high school choir director. Before long, his professors urged him to transfer from education to performance. That very first year, he auditioned for and won admission to a summer music program in Graz, Austria. Even though the cost seemed prohibitive, he took the advice of friends who urged him to put together a letter to relatives asking for donations.

“Members of my family were musical, and I heard a lot of jazz growing up, but after I began singing in choirs, I developed a love for classical music,” he said. “I’ve had so many big breaks that it’s hard to pinpoint one. In looking back, I have to say that the Met competition and joining San Francisco’s Merola program were major events. More recently, winning the Operalia prizes have given me a lot of publicity and opened many doors. This season, I’ll sing the role of Don Ramiro in ‘La Cenerentola’ with both the Seattle Opera and the Los Angeles Opera, and next summer I’m cast in Rossini’s ‘La Donna del Lago’ at Santa Fe, [N.M.]. For the future, I’d love to do another ‘Elixir’ and a ‘Boheme.’ There are wonderful roles out there, and each one I sing is a great pleasure.”

Left to right: René Barbera, Eglise Gutiérrez, Ben Wager and Maureen McKay

Left to right: Madeleine Gray, René Barbera, Eglise Gutiérrez, Ben Wager and Maureen McKay

Our audience view of the stage

René Barbera and Eglise Gutiérrez

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