As tangled opera relationships go, the one at the centre of Bellini's La Sonnambula is one of the best. Lisa is in love with Elvino, but he's engaged to Amina, and Alessio is in love with Lisa, who's not interested. Amina is the sleep-walker of the title, and her actions while unconscious create misunderstandings and jealousy among the other characters.
While not skirting the potential for near-tragedy, Harry Fehr's Buxton Festival production plays up the comedy element - Buxton Opera House, Buxton, UK, 8 July 2023. Brought forward to the late 1960s, much of the action is set in a factory canteen, an idea prompted, we were told in the pre-opera talk, by the film Made in Dagenham, the 2010 comedy-drama about a women-led strike for equal pay. So that gives us an idea of where this production's gender-politics is heading.
Festival Director Adrian Kelly conducts with a sure feel for overall pacing, the chorus puts down a marker for its strong contribution with its lively opening number, and the Northern Chamber Orchestra is well inside both Bellini's fine-spun lines and his incisive moments.
Chinese soprano Ziyi Dai is ideal casting as Amina, here one of the factory workers, her voice gleaming and agile in 'Care compagne', thanking her fellow-workers for their good wishes as she prepares to marry Elvino, and inhabiting her two big sleep-walking scenes with almost uncanny stillness.
Nico Darmanin, fresh from Opera North's production of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers, gives Elvino - clearly from middle management - a macho air to his jealousy, helped by a slight hardness to his tone, and which is interrogated increasingly closely as the opera proceeds.
Ellie Neate almost steals the show as canteen assistant Lisa, despondent at being forced to watch Elvino, her ex, slipping out of her hands, flirty, and then some, in her encounter with Rodolfo, son of the local landowner.
Simon Shibambu is an imposing presence as Rodolfo, who arrives lost on a journey. His acceptance of Lisa's offer of a bed for the night coincides with Amina's first sleepwalking appearance, and the resulting confusion.
Of the smaller roles, Ann Taylor is a solidly dependable Teresa, Amina's adoptive mother; Jacob Bettinelli is suitably tiresome as Alessio, showering Lisa with unwanted attention, and Tobias Campos Santinaque makes his mark as the lawyer who brings the wedding contract for Amina and Elvino to sign.
Everything ends happily, with an added final plot twist which I'm certainly not going to give away.
Copyright © 17 July 2023