LA SONNAMBULA (THE SLEEPWALKER)

Date 22nd February 2019
Society Bath Opera
Venue The Roper Theatre, Hayfield School, Bath
Type of Production Opera
Director Neil Kirkman
Musical Director Peter Blackwood

Report

Author: Matthew Heaton

As not  a regular Opera goer, a Bellini Comic Opera from 1830, originally set in a remote Swiss village in 18th Century and sung in Italian and in Bel-Canto style was perhaps not something I’d usually find myself watching. As a result, it was perhaps with a little trepidation that I took my seat.  I needn’t have worried – Bath Opera had cleverly put together an  excellent production that was both true to the original whilst bringing key aspects up to date for a more modern audience.

This was no easy task.  ‘Bel-Canto’ style (translated as ‘beautiful singing’) was really set-up for the voices of the day, to show-off a singer’s ability and artistry. As a result, there is less emphasis on the story and less stage action, often making it less interesting for  today’s audience. Director Neil Kirkman overcame this expertly, by moving the setting to a modern-day retirement home (to make the slower pace more logical) and as a rational for the chorus being on so much. This worked brilliantly and was a touch of genius. The translation to English by Society Member Graham Billing supported this objective very well too.

The Roper Theatre gives you a nice stage area space to see and work with. It is however limited with wing space and so the fixed chair and tables for the home set at the back worked well. The rotating truck used for the bedroom scene on Stage Left worked well too and was of an impressive construction.  I did sometimes feel the principals on occasion could be set a little closer to the front of the stage, but there may well have been valid reasons why this was not available.

Lighting was relatively simple but very effective and generally well-cued. The side lighting used worked well. The lighting of stage right balcony and stairs for the Act 2 sleepwalk really enhanced the setting. Transitions and scene changes worked very well with the lighting, covering effectively when large chorus entries and exits were required.

The Orchestra produced an excellent sound overall under the very effective control of Peter Blackwood. The sound-proofing flat worked well, deadening the percussion and brass sufficiently. It only very occasionally overpowered the singing in very loud sections. This was impressive as no microphones were used for principals or general chorus  (as far as I could see).

Costumes were more straight forward for a modern setting but were well put-together for the residents and the care staff. Properties were all where they should be and effectively managed.

The principal singing overall for this production was quite exceptional. If the intention was to admire the talents and abilities of these individuals, then I duly was. Peter Blackwood’s programme notes explain the key features of this style as covering ‘floral’ ornamentation, a vocal sound to match emotions, frequent alterations to tempo and pauses for text and musical phrases. I was able to recognise and enjoy all of these in the performance. All of the principals were excellent vocally overall and so to go through each in this way would be repetitive. However, not putting in a few additional notes on each performance would be a disservice:

·         Sarah Grosvenor (Amina). As the lead character and ‘the sleepwalker’ herself, Sarah was able to create the innocence and vulnerability that the character requires to really work. There are no straightforward arias in this opera, but your opening aria was particularly challenging and very well-controlled.

·         Rupert Drury (Elvino). Despite his frequent jealousy, Rupert was able to keep the audience’s sympathy with the character, which was no easy feat. Your vocal diction in-particular, in all of your work was exceptional.

·         Niall Hoskin (Rodolfo). Not only did Niall sing well, but he really made something of the role. His duet in the Bedroom with Amina was a real highlight.

·         Gill Clark (Teresa). A vital if not particularly exciting role, Gill still made it her own whilst reliably supporting the other roles.

·         Sophie Kirk-Harris (Lisa). A terrific voice but Sophie also acted the full range of emotions brilliantly, from both comedy to misery.

·         Robert Felstead (Alexis). A good fun part and he formed a great working relationship with Lisa. 

The large chorus are on a lot in this production, which gave plenty of scope for little cameo roles and characters to be formed amongst the residents and staff. I really enjoyed this and watching them form and play out. I also felt that they never intruded significantly upon the principal performances – which is a credit to everyone. The chorus singing was general very good, with some good harmonies formed. Vocal entries and exits in the chorus sections were a little ragged on occasion. The position away and to the side of the Musical Director may have been a factor here. Overall though, the Chorus Singing complimented the Principal performances very well.

In summary, I greatly enjoyed this production – where some exceptional principal singing was complemented by a great show concept and executed by a talented and enthusiastic cast, chorus and production team.   I look forward to your future productons!