Opera Draws Glowing Reviews

Stefanie Richardson    The chorus sings to Amina in Act 1 of La Sonnambula to celebrate her upcoming marriage to Elvino. Island City Opera’s final performances are this weekend.

Island City Opera has crowned its highly successful season with what is indisputably Vincenzo Bellini’s most accomplished opera, La Sonnambula. For nearly 200 years, La Sonnambula has enjoyed sustained success and popularity since its triumphal opening in Milan in 1831. In its premier performance, during the second act, the singers themselves wept. Although this is not tragic opera, you may find yourself dabbing your eyes.

Music director and conductor Jonathan Khuner and stage director Olivia Stapp have performed a praiseworthy feat bringing this pastoral opera to an Alameda stage.

Vincenzo Salvatore Carmelo Francesco Bellini was perhaps the greatest success story among 19th century Italian composers. Of humble origins in Catania, Sicily, Bellini rose to prominence, working his way northward, first to Naples, then on to Milan, Venice, Paris and London. Of the Italian composers, Bellini was, and is, the most understated. His strongest accolades emanated from neither the press, the music critics nor opera cognoscenti.

Wagner, Verdi and Rossini all marveled at Bellini’s creativity and originality. Bellini’s long-flowing melodic lines earned him the soubriquet “the Swan of Catania.”  Giuseppe Verdi “praised the broad curves of Bellini’s melody.” Bellini was the quintessential composer of the Italian bel canto era. Wagner, who appreciated mostly his own music, was spellbound by Bellini’s uncanny ability to consistently achieve the goal of operatic music i.e. “to match music with text and psychology.”
The city of Naples admonished Bellini “to train your heart to give you melody and then you set it forth as simply as possible, your success will be assured.” Eight years in Naples taught Bellini to infuse his music with passion.

Bellini respected the “sonorous and elegance of the poet’s verses” — evident in Amina’s final aria of La Sonnambula, which contains lyrics that translate to “I did not believe you would fade so soon, oh flower.”

Bellini reveled in romanticism and high-flung exaggeration. He declared that classicism “was cold and boring.” He attempted to focus on “a thought that will be at the same time a prayer, an imprecation, a warning, a delirium.”

Eileen Meredith plays the title role of Amina, and sings the aforementioned aria as a dream, delirium and a prayer.

In La Sonnambula, Bellini achieves his loftiest goals for a composition. A perfectionist, in his day he was hailed as “a modern Orpheus” for not only the beauty of his melodies but for his “restless harmonic shifts into remote keys.”

Even his critics inadvertently praised him: “Bellini’s style was abstruse, discontinuous, distorted … the moods alternated among the serio and the buffo and the semi-serio.” What his distractors were essentially saying is that “no one sleeps in a Bellini opera;” the music is refreshing, energizing and stimulating.

La Sonnambula even captured the hearts of royalty. Protocol dictated no applause at a performance attended by royalty; when La Sonnambula was performed in Naples for Ferdinand II, at the curtain, the King spontaneously leapt to his feet and applauded wildly.

On the technical side, La Sonnambula represents a veritable tour de force for Amina, “the sleepwalker.” Meredith remarkably measures up to the vocal challenges and surmounts the strenuous demands of Bellini.

Bellini wrote the role with a particular opera singer in mind, never anticipating its intimidation value to future generations of singers.

Far from intimidated, Meredith is emotionally effusive and boldly expansive. The title role demands a high tessitura “renowned for its difficulty, requiring a complete command of trills and florid technique … It was written for a soprano sfogato.”

It would be no exaggeration to say that Meredith lived up to Bellini’s exacting expectations; La Sonnambula is possibly her greatest vocal adventure.

In Paris, Bellini met the writer Heinrich Heine who had the audacity to tell Bellini “You are a genius, Bellini, but you will pay for your great gift with a premature death.” An ominous variant of the expression: “The candle that burns brightest, burns briefest.”

Heine was right; Bellini died at 33. His tomb in the Cathedral of Catania is inscribed with the closing aria of La Sonnambula.

Those who see Island City Opera’s rendition will agree that the choice is not surprising.

The final performances for La Sonnambula are scheduled for Friday, March 16, and Sunday, March 18, at the Elks Lodge, 2255 Santa Clara Ave. To reserve seats, call 263-8060 or visit www.islandcityopera.org.