With music so sublime and a story so silly, it makes sense to present Bellini’s La sonnambula in concert rather than fully staged. Furthermore, this approach enabled star soprano Jessica Pratt to give her all to the title role’s coloratura fireworks, and the audience to focus on the wonder that is her voice.
Since its premiere in 1831, La sonnambula’s conservative tale has not aged well. It’s so absurd that the libretto (projected in English) occasionally left the audience chuckling, as sleepwalker Amina is repudiated by her fiancé, Elvino, when discovered snoozing in Count Rudolfo’s chamber. Her mother, Teresa, her rival, Lisa, and a chorus of peasants provide contrasting commentary.
The cast’s physical engagement with the story was necessarily minimal – mostly facial expressions and the odd gentle embrace – which left a few moments without context, such as Elvino confiscating Amina’s engagement ring. It mattered little, however, as surely everyone had come for the music (I overheard one audience member say he had come down from Sydney specifically for this concert).
Above all, we had come to hear Australian-born, Italian-based Pratt in her now annual appearance with Victorian Opera, which has been instrumental in the company bringing back bel canto favourites by Bellini and Donizetti to Melbourne stages (some rarely seen since Joan Sutherland’s day; and yes, there were positive whispers of comparison between the great dame and Pratt).
With a stunning combination of talent and technique, she mesmerised the audience as Amina. Beautiful tone, flawless control, excellent diction, stratospheric top notes, agile trills, pianissimo that was, somehow, simultaneously delicate and powerful, expression that revealed a profound understanding of character and score – Pratt demonstrated the full arsenal of a great coloratura soprano. Brava!
In the role of Lisa, fellow soprano Greta Bradman more than held her own, with a voice of lovely warmth that is pure and bright in the upper register. Italian bass Paolo Pecchioli also impressed as the count. The quality of each note he sang was like a very fine, full-bodied shiraz, and he delivered them as if relishing them as such.
As Teresa, mezzo Roxane Hislop, whose smile fills the heart with joy, was polished. The only slightly weak link among the principals was Colombian-born Carlos Barcenas. His tenor was, for the most part, lyrical and dignified, but the strain of those big notes was apparent, especially during the first act.
Two minor roles were capably interpreted by Timothy Newton and Tomas Dalton, who made their way from among the chorus at the back of the stage as required. With tenor Timothy Reynolds, a soloist of some renown, among their number, the calibre of the chorus was apparent, and they sang with excellent unity and nuance.
Victorian Opera artistic director Richard Mills led a very fulsome Orchestra Victoria, which occasionally overwhelmed the singers, especially early in the concert, but was otherwise wonderfully in sympathy with the cast and score. The strings’ caresses of its Mozartian melodies were particularly pleasing.
With the addition of the principal gents’ tails and white ties, and the ladies’ elegant gowns (including two for Pratt, who changed during interval), this La sonnambula was ultimately a celebration. Of Pratt, of course, but also bel canto and Victorian Opera, which continues to step boldly along old and new paths less travelled.