La sonnambula | Opera AustraliaLeft - Emma Matthews & Joshua Bloom. Cover - Emma Matthews, Jorge Lopez-Yanez & Joshua Bloom. Photos - Jeff Busby

I was drawn to seeing Opera Australia’s La sonnambula simply because of soprano, Emma Matthews and conductor, Richard Bonynge. And yes, this pair of beautiful musicians carried the production, bringing Vincenzo Bellini’s music to life, allowing the audience to revel in this beautiful piece of bel canto repertoire. Matthews is a joy to listen to. She possesses a beautiful legato, floating her voice with an expressive ease and clarity. Her voice is perfectly placed, never pushed or forced. She expressed the innocence and earnestness of the deeply in-love Amina. Through the loud chorus, Matthews’ voice floated like a bell or a bird-song.

La sonnambula is a funny little opera which tells the story of Amina, a sleepwalker, who gets herself into all sorts of trouble by ending up in a stranger’s bed. Bellini uses this silly pastoral plot as a platform for his dazzling bel canto melodies. Yet, the plot, in which not much actually happens, has often proved a problem for stage directors to realise. It is here where Opera Australia’s production fell short.

For me, Opera Australia’s production lacked inspiration and inventiveness. Director, Julie Edwardson, describes the story as ‘truthful’ and ‘very believable’, trying her best to faithfully recreate librettist, Felice Romani’s, setting of a Swiss village. The set is very sparse and typical of many a stage representation of Switzerland, so too the costumes are much what you would expect. Overall, there was a lack of imagination, with easy laughs the only means to entertain and engage.

Last year, director Mary Zimmerman produced a wonderful (in my opinion) La sonnambula at The Metropolitan Opera, starring Natalie Dessay and Juan Diego Florez. She felt that the story lacked complexity and plausibility, and so relocated the opera into a rehearsal room to create a much more believable setting for a contemporary audience. Zimmerman’s concept pushed the boundaries and was booed by audience members on opening night, receiving a scathing review in The Washington Post. However, in my opinion Zimmerman not only brought the music to life, she brought the story to life as well.

The highlight of an opera is most certainly the singing and the music, yet, for me, opera is special and spectacular for the way it can unify music and drama. Watching The Metropolitan Opera’s production last year I was not only captured by the music but thoroughly entertained by the drama. Opera Australia’s production, on the other hand, made me want to shut my eyes and simply enjoy the music rather than look at the predictable staging and the ham acting.

The applause was loud and long, and many people will walk away thinking and talking only of Matthews’ singing and Bonynge’s conducting. But I think Opera Australia should take more risks and experiment a little, challenge their audiences with something new, particularly when such fine singers and conductors are there to take care of the music.

Opera Australia presents
La sonnambula
Vincenzo Bellini

Venue: State Theatre, Arts Centre in Melbourne
Dates: April 30 – May 17, 2010
Duration: Two hours and 40 minutes with one 20-minute interval
Free Opera Talks: May 6, 17 – 45 minutes before performances
Tickets: $55 - $229. Child ticket from $50.
Bookings: Ticketmaster on 1300 136 166 | | Arts Centre Box Office

Sung in Italian with English surtitles

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