La Sonnambula
(The Sleepwalker)

Reviewer's rating

This jewel of an opera has many wonderful moments to savour though it sometimes  feels as if one is waiting for “the good bits” – but not in this splendid production, part of the Buxton Festival. With wonderful singers and an inventive director, the whole opera comes together into a witty and well-paced performance that has the audience cheering the music and laughing at the story. The action is updated to the 1950s and instead of the traditional village with its mill and inn, our scenes are set in a works canteen and in the home of one of the protagonists.

Amina is to be married to the wealthy Elvino, much to the disgust of canteen manager Lisa, who was once engaged to him herself. She opts out of the general rejoicing at the forthcoming marriage. During this festivity a stranger arrives looking for the landowner’s mansion. He is told that as night is coming on and the house is not nearby he should stay in the village – Lisa offers to accommodate him. As the second scene begins she prepares to “entertain” him but Amina, sleep walking, enters the room. The stranger, now known to be Rodolfo, realises what is happening and leaves, but Amina’s workmates enter the room and understandably jump to the conclusion that she has been unfaithful. Elvino rejects her. Rodolfo tries to persuade everyone that Amina is innocent but only when she is seen sleepwalking again do people believe her and does Elvino ask for her forgiveness. In this production, there is a very big twist in the tail.

Most reviews would focus next on the principal singers – but I am going to start with the chorus, who were simply superb. The voices sounded young and fresh and the collective performance was brilliant – some of the best comic moments were theirs. Of course, the director Harry Fehr must have been the guiding force but the sheer exuberance of the chorus was worth a special mention. And the two main principals were very special too. Ziyi Dai as Amina and Nico Darmanin as Elvino are outstanding talents. Buxton Opera House is a small marvel and both performers must have been revelling in the fact that singers can fill the space without any sign of strain. Certainly, Dai produced all the fireworks that the role of Amina requires while Darmanin has a thrilling tenor that would be welcome in the bigger opera houses of the UK. Ellie Neate made the most of the off-beat production turning the role of Lisa into a proper rival to Amina. Simon Shibambu has a resonant baritone voice and, as the stranger who unwittingly precipitates Amina’s trials, he is full of indignation at the readiness her fiancee and her workmates to condemn her. The Northern Chamber Orchestra under the baton of Adrian Kelly produces an entirely convincing sound that helps to ensure that the translation of the plot from 1830 to 1960 works well.

The set is a bit ‘kitchen sink’ and a bit ‘workers playtime’ and this strips some of the mystery out of the plot – but the inherent lack of reality of the sleepwalking episodes in the original story is turned to a strength in this inventive production and however unlikely the final plot twist is, it really does not outdo the absurdity of the original. Sometimes when directors go for radical updates the plot holes left ruin the work. Though there are plenty of “surely nots” here, the standard of musicianship and the comedy of the staging sweeps the audience past these moments. This is a very fine addition to the Buxton International Festival’s enviable repertoire.