On Apr. 27th, Opera Niagara presented a staged production of Bellini's two-act, opera semiseria, La sonnambula. To attempt to stage such a vocally demanding work, with limited rehearsal time takes talent and nerve--both of which Opera Niagara's artists have in spades. As Anina, Bellini's emotionally fragile and complex heroine, American soprano Catherine Wethington had the vocal power and dramatic finesse for this touchstone bel canto role. Wethington's voice was compelling in mournful passages such as "Ah! non credea mirarti," but she was also able to produce the vocal fireworks and florid technique necessary for her joyful final aria "Ah! non giunge uman pensiero."
Other than Wethington, the rest of the leads were Canadian. Tenor Joel Ricci (Elvino) was impressive; his voice was never forced, demonstrating a lovely light lyric tonality throughout. His "Ah perche non posso odiarti" was met with prolonged applause. Ricci's and Wetherington's voices blended beautifully. Baritone Jeffrey Carl (Count Rodolfo) was vocally powerful and he managed to create an empathetic, as well as charming, character. Mezzo-soprano Stephanie Yelovich was a sensitive actor and sang richly as Anina's mother, Teresa. Tackling the role of the jilted Alessio, aspiring baritone Alexander Leigh showed fine potential in his opera debut, while soprano Evelyne Larochelle was a sassy and vocally adept Lisa.
The production was staged in the 1950s-era sanctuary of Niagara Falls' Southminster United Church. The 40-plus member volunteer chorus navigated the small space effectively and sounded sumptuous, staying in-synch even while walking up aisles and circumventing the chancel. Maestra and General Director, Maria Vetere led soloists and the chorus through the ebbs and flows of Bellini's work.
Canadian-born pianist Adolfo De Santis was a masterful accompanist, making the church's upright piano sound like an orchestra throughout the three-hour show. Wireless difficulties resulted in a distracting, flickering light for anyone seated further back in the sanctuary. Overall, however, the lighting and fog effects added an eeriness to the sleepwalking scenes.
Trees, floral accents, a wooden pergola and creative draping were used to create the illusion of an idyllic rural setting. Costumes were authentic and historically accurate, something often overlooked by smaller regional companies. The chorus all looked the part of 19th-century villagers, but their glowing, camouflaged electronic tablets in the Act II processional were jarring.
While all the artists in this production did an outstanding job, the many women involved played a huge role in the success of the night. Opera's centuries-old conventions usually exclude women from leadership roles on stage or behind-the-scenes. Yet, this production combined the talents of Vetere, Artistic Director Aprile Millo and chorus directors Jennifer McKillop and Lindsey Duggan--all forces to be reckoned with--for an impressive production. For this and many other reasons, Opera Niagara's La sonnambula deserved to be savoured like the fine wines for which the region is famous.--Dawn Martens
Caption: Joel Ricci (Elvino) and Catherine Wethington (Anina) in Opera Niagaras Lasonnambula
Caption: James Westman in the title role of Opera de Quebec's Nabucco