La sonnambula, Stuttgart Opera

Despite their engagement, all is not well between Amina and Elvino. She flinches when he nears her. His embraces hint at violence; he pins her down and lays a speculative hand around her neck. She knows she can expect no better. But when Count Rodolfo appears on the scene, we recognise a hunger for a better life in the way she looks at him.

With their new production of Bellini’s bucolic alpine relationship drama, Jossi Wieler, Sergio Morabito and Anna Viebrock restore Stuttgart’s opera house to a position of pre-eminence in Germany.

For the 15 years (1991-2006) that Klaus Zehelein was in charge, Stuttgart hosted some of the best productions in Europe. He is one of the leading minds in contemporary German music theatre, and nurtured the Wieler/Morabito/Viebrock triumvirate. Less fortunate experiments dominated the schedule under his successor, but Wieler’s ascension to the head of the house this season signals a return to Zehelein’s values of productions based firmly on score and text. And that is a fine thing, if this premiere is any guide.

The plot of La sonnambula is silly. When Amina turns up in Count Rodolfo’s bed, Elvino returns to his ex, Lisa, until Amina exonerates herself with a public act of sleepwalking. Felice Romani’s text is at best superficial; the opera’s success depends on spectacular singing.

With characteristic genius, Viebrock’s sets and costumes transport the action to a grimly claustrophobic village hall some time in the recent past. No alpine vistas mitigate the barbarity of this small-minded society. Tables and benches are folded and unfolded in a windowless communal space where people meet to mind each other’s business, drink schnapps and form judgments.

Amina, shy and powerless, is pushed by her buttoned-up foster-mother Teresa into a socially advantageous match. Wieler and Morabito’s psychological observation is both detailed and wickedly entertaining; the audience often roars with laughter, but never loses sympathy with the tragic heroine. At the bottom of their clever retelling lies an unshakeable faith in the score.

Singing that gets ever better as the evening progresses helps us believe in the feelings of the protagonists. Ana Durlovski’s Amina has both touching fragility and – increasingly – poetic depth. Luciano Botelho succeeds in acting the brute while singing with smooth elegance as Elvino; Helene Schneiderman makes a Teresa of delectable complexity. Catriona Smith’s Lisa is desperate, sassy and plausible, while Liang Li brings warmth and depth to the figure of Rudolfo. The chorus is superb. On the podium, Gabriele Ferro keeps his forces well together and hits a perfect balance between efficiency, delicacy, emotion and levity.

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