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La Sonnambula

Romani and Bellini

Buxton International Festival

Buxton Opera House

July 8-22, 2023. 2 hrs 35 mins

Ellie Neate as Lisa (foreground) with the cast of Buxton International Festival's La sonnambula. Credit Genevieve Girling
Ellie Neate as Lisa (foreground) with the cast of Buxton International Festival's La Sonnambula. All pics: Genevieve Girling
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Bellini’s La Sonnambula, a comedic showpiece of bel canto from 1831, was a huge success throughout the rest of the 19th century and gets a rightful return to the stage in Buxton International Festival’s new version, directed by Harry Fehr.

Fehr has done imaginative updates of opera stories in his productions for Clonter Opera in Cheshire, and his new setting of this story is great fun, aided by brilliant sets by Nicky Shaw and costume design by Zahra Mansouri, with lighting by Jake Wiltshire. It’s a jewel of the 2023 festival, with great resource and care applied.

We’re in a Buxton business canteen of the 1960s (not the Swiss village of the original scenario) – beautifully reconstructed in the set: many of the audience will remember taking their office lunch in places just like it. The young, handsome boss (Elvino) has fallen for Amina, one of the smart girls among the workforce, and wedding bells are imminent. But he also has history with the canteen assistant, Lisa, whose light-hearted envy turns to something different when a stranger appears. It’s Rodolfo, apparently lost on a walking holiday, since he comes in brandishing an Ordnance Survey map.

Lisa is very much a Sixties girl, and offers him a bed for the night, complete with her own ministrations (the set transforms to a bedroom, in a fast and delightful change). She’s just getting her pants off when they are disturbed by Amina, sleepwalking-in at the window. Rodolfo is quickly out of there and Amina takes to the bed – to be discovered by a crowd and instantly suspected of being a total slut. Lisa knows how to play this and finishes up becoming the boss’s intended instead.

The true explanation of her presence in the bedroom seems unbelievable – both her and Rodolfo’s protestations notwithstanding – but Lisa’s good old mum, Teresa, saves the day by finding Lisa’s pants where they were left before the whole thing started. And then Amina is back, apparently sleepwalking again… I won’t go any further, as in the original she and Elvino make up and everybody lives happily ever after, but in this version it’s a bit different.

The thing about bel canto, though is what the phrase means: beautiful singing. Bellini’s score is both a challenge and a great reward when you have good singers, and here they are not just good but really good, and exceptional actors, too.

Ziyi Dai is a wonderful coloratura soprano with a lustrous range of tone: her character, Amina, may not have much to do in acting terms except look either happy or grief-stricken and then do the sleep-walking, but her vocal powers are extraordinary and equal to everything Bellini asks. Ellie Neate is a brilliant soprano, too, with a different but equally resourceful colour in her voice and all the technique, vocal and histrionics needed. Nico Darmanin, who was brilliant as Uberto in last year’s BIF showpiece, La Donna del Lago, is right there as Elvino, top Cs and all, and can sing his cavatinas tenderly too.

There’s no weak link in it. Simon Shibambu brings suitable gravitas to Rodolfo, and Ann Taylor is as good as ever as Teresa; Jacob Bettinelli fills the thankless role of Alessio (a would-be, but unsuccessful, suitor of Amina) well and Tobias Campos Santinaque has the brief role of the notary.

The music is skilfully paced by conductor Adrian Kelly – plenty of variety and subtlety in his slow introductions, not the here-we-go-again plod that some fall into, and magnificent climaxes and ensembles, with the 20-strong Buxton Festival chorus making a wonderful sound (chorusmaster Paul Plummer).

More info and tickets here

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