Lyric Opera

at the Civic Opera House

September 17, 21, 24, 27, and 30 and October 3, 7, and 11

In the summer of 1850, Chicago audiences heard the first opera ever performed here: Vincenzo Bellini’s La sonnambula. The opera was such a success that a repeat performance was given the next day; during that performance the theater caught fire and burned to the ground. Some 140 years later, at the Lyric Opera premiere of the work, there was no need to call the fire marshall–although much of the singing was indeed hot.

La sonnambula (“The Sleepwalker”) is one of those works, to quote a favorite phrase of Pavarotti’s, that is “so old it seems like new.” Like Rossini’s Cinderella, which we heard in a stunning Chicago Opera Theater performance last spring, La sonnambula only works with an enormously talented bel canto soprano in the lead, one of the reasons it isn’t done as often as it should be given its beautiful music and considerable charm.

The Lyric Opera production features a lead who is not only enormously talented, but who is that rara avis–someone with a flawless vocal technique, a beautiful and consistent timbre and pitch throughout the lower, middle, and upper registers; someone with great projection, power, presence, clarity, and imagination who also happens to be beautiful and can act. Set in a Swiss village, the story concerns a sleepwalker, Amina, who is accused of infidelity when she is found asleep in the bedroom of another man on the eve of her wedding. The soprano is Cecilia Gasdia, and to hear her soar as Amina alone makes this production well worth hearing. To say Gasdia is magnificent in the role is a terrible understatement.

There is other fine singing in this production, and much else to recommend it. Although tenor Frank Lopardo, as Elvino, has a tight, pinched timbre that becomes more pinched in the higher register, his technique varied generally from very good to excellent. His acting was superb as the jealous, tortured husband-to-be who is unable to reconcile his love of Amina with his belief in her betrayal. His transformations back and forth are convincing, but when he sings duets with Gasdia, he is often unable to keep up with her projection and technique. She is so extraordinary that in a duet like the one that closes the first scene of act one, where each sings the same ornamented vocal lines in succession, the bookends are definitely lopsided. It is a real tribute to Gasdia that she held back as much as she did during her duets with Lopardo, apparently trying to maintain a sense of balance between soprano and tenor.

Baritone Dimitri Kavrakos is an impressive presence as Count Rodolfo, the stranger who flirts with Amina, initiating Elvino’s jealousy in the first act. Kavrakos, with a pleasing, medium-sized baritone voice that can be quite expressive, makes a wonderful flirt and ham. When the sleepwalking Amina shows up on his balcony, his reactions are priceless. His final plea of innocence and explanation of the bizarre and unheard-of phenomenon of somnambulism is a wonderfully dramatic moment.

Soprano Cynthia Lawrence is a wonderfully scheming Lisa. In love with Elvino herself, Lisa tries to spread the lie that Amina has cheated on him. Alto Martha Jane Howe sings an impressive Teresa, stepmother to Amina, and supporting singers include John Horton Murray and Donn Cook, who were neither particularly memorable nor offensive. The Lyric Opera Chorus, though generally quite fine in terms of balance and ensembling in this production, nonetheless seemed weak dynamically.

During the overture, some poor string ensembling made for a fuzzy start, but in general conductor Donato Renzetti kept tight control and balance. I would have liked to have heard much more tempo variation, however, and particularly some faster tempi. Act one got off to a slow and stodgy start, presumably to accommodate the ballet dancing. And the ensemble scenes in general needed to be picked up a bit, although the tempi for solos and arias did seem appropriate. Perhaps more contrasts in tempo would have created more tension and release, which seemed lacking in sections where the score obviously cried out for them.

The scenery and costumes for this production were appropriately lavish, borrowed from Teatro San Carlo of Naples. Although the ballroom set was impressive, it became a bizarre, permanent fixture for the entire opera, including outdoor village scenes, with rocks and shrubs literally growing out of ballroom stairs. The backdrops were poorly painted, and translucent enough to reveal whatever scenery or people were behind them, a considerable and unnecessary distraction.

The imagination is asked to go a bit far to accept a huge ballroom set as a single room in an inn with a small bed, dresser, screen, chair, and table all crammed into one corner of the stage.

Some of the staging was a bit flat as well. One of the interesting twists of the plot is that a mysterious phantom haunts the village at night, yet there is nothing scary about the “phantom” at all. In several sections, especially the beginning of act two, the staging seemed so senseless that no one onstage seemed to have any idea what anyone else was doing or why.

Still, this production of La sonnambula is enormously satisfying–well worth the price of a ticket, if only to hear Cecilia Gasdia. It is wonderful to hear a bel canto opera (which hasn’t been heard in over 50 years here, and never at Lyric) done so well and so entertainingly.