'La Sonnambula': Washington Concert Opera's glorious bel canto

Another treasure at Lisner by DC's little opera company that could. Photo: Don Lassell for WCO

WASHINGTON, September 18, 2012 – The Washington Concert Opera got its short season off to a smashing start this past Sunday afternoon at GWU’s Lisner Auditorium with an absolutely dazzling performance of Bellini’s bel canto opera, La Sonnambula (“The Sleepwalker”). Not heard in DC, we are told, since the mid-1980s, WCO’s kick-off performance brought this feisty little company back into the bel canto repertoire for which they’re most cherished in this city.

Actually, WCO had a little inadvertent competition from WNO (Washington National Opera) this weekend as the latter company opened its own season with a fully staged and entirely different production of Donizetti’s Anna Bolena at the Kennedy Center. WNO’s performances are fully staged, of course, while WCO presents the music and singing with little in the way of props, focusing purely on the score. This approach makes WCO’s tickets more affordable. But it also enables this company to highlight phenomenal singers that, for various reasons, you might never get a chance to see in a full production.

Possessing a flimsier, less dramatic plot than Bolena and set in the placid Swiss countryside, Sonnambula is a more delicate, nuanced score that highlights Bellini’s greatest compositional strengths—beautiful, long-lasting melodic excursions along with stratospheric vocal leaps. These latter bits of showmanship, however, are in themselves rather tasteful as they occur only at infrequent intervals, saving the singer from wearing out, and the listener from being too agitated as he or she awaits these short but important moments of vocal truth.

Orchestra and cast members of WCO’s terrific ‘La Sonnambula.’ Maestro Antony Walker at center. (Credit: Don Lassell for WCO)

Sonnambula’s tissue-thin plot involves a pair of dueling young women—well, one of them, the innkeeper Lisa (soprano Maureen McKay), is doing the dueling—who both have fallen in love with the same guy, Elvino (tenor René Barbera), who’s described as a “wealthy young landowner.”

The winner in the Elvino sweepstakes is the demure, self-effacing Amina (soprano Eglise Guttiérez). Much beloved by the townspeople, she’s a onetime orphan who was adopted by the mill owner Teresa (mezzo-soprano Madeline Gray).

In disguise, Count Rodolfo (baritone Ben Wager) drops into town after many years’ absence in order to move back into the ancestral castle he’s inherited. But Lisa sees through his disguise in a millisecond—as do the villagers—and offers to put him up at her inn for the night since it’s already too late to get to the distant castle that evening.

While ensconced in his room, he’s visited by a “ghost” that’s been frightening villagers, who actually turns out to be the hapless Amina. For it is she who is this opera’s eponymous sleepwalker. Compounding this strange situation in the Count’s room, she unluckily falls back to sleep. Which allows Lisa to discover her rival’s “compromising” situation and torpedo her impending marriage to Elvino by broadcasting Amina’s alleged transgression throughout the town. Not to worry, though. Things all get sorted out in the end, and the “nice” girl gets to live happily ever after.

What we ourselves end up with is a nice little domestic comedy-farce. Its amusing plot offered the composer ample opportunity to set down charming, romantic solos, duets, and ensembles. These are punctuated by a few pages here and there of exciting martial music as the story’s various dramatic plot turns come to the fore. The entire work is an easy to listen to delight. Sunday’s audience simply loved it to death for all the right reasons: they heard gorgeous music graciously performed by singers unafraid to mine each exquisite line’s emotional core.

Key soloists in this work were our heroine, Amina, her suitor Elvino, her rival Lisa, and finally, the befuddled but good-natured Count. The singers performed each part with lightness and grace, and the WCO orchestra under the baton of Maestro Antony Walker—who serves as the company’s artistic director—accompanied them with their accustomed sensitivity. But they also let things rip during moments when they themselves were center stage.

As Elvino, Mr. Barbera was most impressive, boasting a clarion tenor whose authority was unmistakable at every entrance. Clean and unencumbered by any affectation, his instrument always rang true and his vocal lines were remarkable for their precise and gracious phrasing.

As Amina, Ms. Gutiérrez, whom we had not heard prior to this performance, proved to be a treasure as well. Given the most taxing music in the score, she generally navigated both simple and wickedly complex passages with the greatest of ease, providing many of the most thrilling moments for an enthusiastic WCO audience.  Her voice did desert her for two or three brief moments during her frequent excursions to the top, and her face betrayed a bit of self-irritation at this during the curtain call.

But she needn’t have worried. The audience easily forgave those ephemeral millisecond lapses, focusing instead on the extraordinary, intense artistry she radiated throughout her performance. And this is live music, after all, with no second takes to hide behind as in a recording studio.

As Lisa, Ms. McKay proved more delightful than malevolent as Bellini’s designated villain. She really has nothing against Amina other than the fact that she herself wanted to marry Elvino. Ms. McKay vocally alternates an almost syrupy charm when she’s pleased with herself, and an almost adolescent petulance when things go the other way. We recall her fine performance as Johanna in Wolf Trap Opera’s Sweeney Todd some time back, and it’s clear that she has continued to grow as a fine young artist whose career is now well on its way.

Ben Wager clearly had fun Sunday in his role as Count Rodolfo. Rodolfo, as the town’s returning ruler, is clearly in a position of authority, but seems to gently bungle it at every turn as he’s ensnared into the town’s real and imagined ghost story which complicates the upcoming nuptials of Amina and Elvino. Mr. Wager’s acting skills—even in concert opera—combined with excellent phrasing and diction and a steady vocal attack, lent to his character a nearly perfect balance graciousness, forthrightness, and frustration, burnishing the light, comic moments of this opera.

While the role of Teresa is a small one, Madeleine Gray brought to it a fine dignity that allowed her character to believably take some difficult situations in hand and bring her confused daughter, fiancé, and others to a satisfying denouement.

The worst thing about Sunday’s performance is that it’s over, which forces us to wait until next April 7, when WCO will perform Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda in its second and final performance of this season. We’ll be there. But in the meantime we’ll continue to bask in the sheer, remembered joy of this company’s wonderfully realized La Sonnambula.


Read more of Terry’s news and reviews at Curtain Up! in the Entertain Us neighborhood of the Washington Times Communities. For Terry’s investing and political insights, visit his Communities columns, The Prudent Man and Morning Market Maven, in Business.

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Terry Ponick

Now writing on investing, politics, music, and theater for the Washington Times Communities, Terry was the longtime music and culture critic for the Washington Times (1994-2009). 

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