One of the hazards of adapting a foreign language opera into the vernacular is it’s more readily apparent how dumb the story is. Sure, there are surtitle translations in the original Italian, French, or German, but few things puncture opera’s highbrow conceit better than hearing a soprano sing “It’s my way or the highway.”
Dumb is, of course, a relative term. Bellini’s La Sonnambula (the sleepwalker) does revolve around sleepwalking, the kind of sophisticated plot device that’s been used in episodes of Cougar Town and Desperate Housewives; even the specific story, a person wrongfully accused of a crime (or, in this case, adultery) due to her sleepwalking, then exonerated when observed in the act, is a staple of police procedurals like Law & Order, Diagnosis: Murder, and CSI. But when you think about it, it isn’t any dumber than better-known operas that revolve around, say, love potions (Tristan und Isolde, L’Esir d’Amore), tragic mystery diseases (La Traviata, La Bohème), or preposterous disguises (Così fan tutte, Die Fledermaus). Once an opera has claimed its place in the pantheon of standard repertoire, any cliché or cheesy line—-indeed, even the whole story—-gets taken for granted. La Sonnambula just seems ridiculous because we don’t see it performed that much.
Staging semi-obscure operas in reduced form is the M.O. of the In Series, and Bellini’s modest bel canto work is a good candidate—-you can’t really do Aida at the Source black box. Thus, aside from director Steven Scott Mazzola’s English adaptation of Felice Romani’s libretto, there’s minimal tinkering; one chorus gets dropped, and a scene from the first act gets moved to the second. But squashing an orchestral score into a six-piece strings-and-wind ensemble necessarily undercuts the drama of Bellini’s music. That is, when it can be heard at all: Despite conductor Stanley Thurston’s best efforts, his sometimes wobbly ensemble is frequently drowned out by the singers, the opposite problem that operas in bigger venues often have.
Chamber opera is a challenge for singers, too. It can be tough to attract talent willing to learn a new English adaptation of something they’re used to singing in Italian, especially if it’s for a small company and unlikely to be staged anywhere else again. And there’s the challenge of modulating your voice to fit the venue, which some of La Sonnambula’s singers did well but which its two leads, soprano CarrieAnne Winter and tenor Joe Haughton, did not. While he frequently elbowed aside his fellow cast members, leaving duets and trios unbalanced, Haughton, as jealous groom Elviro, does have a crisp, dramatic timbre that resonated well.
Winter, as the afflicted bride Amina, grated a bit in her second act arias, though her acting chops are strong, convincingly conveying Amina’s anguish in her ring duet with Elviro. (And at least she doesn’t do the Frankenstein‘s monster thing when she sleepwalks.) Then there’s the problem of coordination: with the ensemble and conductor situated behind the singers, rather than in front and below in an orchestra pit, it’s easy to fall out of time with the music, which baritone Brody DelBeccaro, as the love triangle’s third wheel, Rodolfo, frequently did.
But those may be opening night kinks to be worked out as the run continues. While the otherwise decent singing could stand to tighten up a bit, there’s little to say about the staging, a set that consists of four painted plywood panels on wheels, and the unimaginative costumes, kind of generic old European-villager dress. For its Mozart adaptations, the In Series tends to go all out (for example, its raucous Wild West take on Die Entführung aus dem Serail), but for Bellini, as with Verdi last year, they’ve kept their ambitions on a leash. It’s no surprise that an unambitious, though serviceable, production is the result.
La Sonnambula continues through Sunday, January 25 at Source, 1835 14th St. NW. $22 – 42. 202-204-7763
Photo by Angelisa Gillyard