Wake-up Call

Bellini's La Sonnambula is about a sleepwalking-prone Swiss maiden who is rejected by her fiancé. Though melodramatic, fatuous and flimsy, the wretched plot is easy to forgive for one simple reason: The opera's arias are gorgeous -- so gorgeous, in fact, that these stunning vocal showcases are difficult to sing.

La Sonnambula isn't the first bel canto (translation: "beautiful song, beautifully sung") work that Opera in the Heights has tackled. Recently the company presented a successful version of Donizetti's L'Elisir D'Amore under the music direction of William Weibel, a former Metropolitan Opera assistant conductor. But compared to L'Elisir, OPIH's rendition of La Sonnambula was a huge disappointment on opening night. Several lead vocalists lacked either the facility or the experience to handle their roles. A usually robust chorus sounded awkward and stiff and, at times, in need of serious rehearsal. Ironically, it was the 12-piece orchestra -- smaller than normal for this company -- that provided the evening's most consistent, satisfying music.

The story, adapted by Felice Romani as a pastoral idyll set in a 19th-century Swiss village, was originally based on a ballet composed by Jean-Pierre Aumer. Events revolve around Amina (Julia Kay), who is called an adulterer by her fiancé, Elvino (Pablo Veguilla), when he refuses to believe that she meandered into Count Rodolfo's hotel room after a bout of somnambulism. The hotel hostess Lisa (Sibel Demirmen) sees the couple's estrangement as an opportunity to grab Elvino for herself, while Rodolfo (Anthony Ashley) attempts to convince the townsfolk that sleepwalking is indeed the affliction that plagues Amina. Eventually he and Amina's mother, Teresa (Nancy Markeloff), prove the girl's innocence.

While Donizetti's arias are often showy, the solo lines that Bellini wrote for Amina are more delicate and drawn out, with ornate punctuation. As Amina, Kay has a hypnotically beautiful soprano, but she's ill-equipped to master the composer's technically challenging solos. During the first two acts, her phrasing sounded out of control, and her handle on the melody tenuous. She improved during a relatively unadorned third-act aria that was stylistically similar to Verdi.

As Lisa, soprano Demirmen got off to a serviceable start, but midway through the production her tone began to sound wan, and her enunciation faltered. She didn't project clearly enough during ensembles and sometimes could barely be heard. As Elvino, Veguilla's tenor sounded hopelessly reedy, and he seemed to have trouble staying in tune. His voice lacked the mellifluous quality that tenors have brought to the role in the past. Even worse, his duets with Kay were disappointingly mediocre.

It was Ashley and Markeloff who infused the performance with grace. Throughout the production, Ashley supplied a lustrous and clear baritone, which he used to phrase with extreme subtlety. Although Teresa is a comparatively small role, Markeloff's solid soprano was ample and satisfying.

Hal Spencer's staging offered a few intriguing moments, especially when Amina teetered in her sleep way above the villagers' heads during the climactic scene, which came off smoothly. But there was no explanation for the strange gap behind the curved backdrop, near stage right, that allowed one side of the audience to peek backstage as the chorus waited in the wings.

Weibel's direction of the orchestra was effective. The woodwind section produced some of the evening's most fulfilling melodies, particularly flutists Catherine LeGrand and Kimberly Knudsen and clarinetists Carol Stinson and Carrie Budelman. Why Weibel chose to use recorded music for the first choral scene in the first act is a mystery, though. The piped-in music sounded cheesy, and constituted a step backward for the company, which prides itself on going beyond the modest aims of community theater.

Although Weibel's three-year contract ended in January, he plans to continue as artistic director and already has scheduled the next two seasons, says Reba Kochersperger, OPIH general director. The good news, she told the Houston Press, is that Weibel likely will stay indefinitely and seems happy with the position.

Thus far, Weibel has managed to work miracles with a company that has a minuscule budget and virtually no institutional backing compared to Houston Grand Opera and the two subsidized university studios. Let's hope Sonnambula is an anomaly, and not a sign of things to come.

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Cynthia Greenwood