From our standpoint today, it is unusual for us to think that the title roles of La sonnambula and Norma, both composed by Bellini in 1831, were also performed by the same singer, the legendary soprano sfogato Giuditta Pasta. Nowadays, we tend to think of both these roles totally different in character. In Deutsche Oper Berlin's production, the role of Amina was sung by Russian soprano Venera Gimadieva, with her dark coloratura and down-to-earth, robust gestures, apt for Bellini's country girl.

Venera Gimadieva (Amina) © Bernd Uhlig
Venera Gimadieva (Amina)
© Bernd Uhlig

Seven years after this production was voted as “production of the year” at Oper Stuttgart, it is now being shown in Berlin. The directing duo Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito, as well as stage and costume designer Anna Viebrock, have created an homogeneous interpretation, which they set in an unspecified mid-century village inn. The hyper-realistic vaulted ceilings of the main room, with its staircase in the recess of the stage and its many tables and benches, fairly reek of cold smoke, stale beer and local gossip. Everyone knows everyone else’s secrets, which are allegorically kept in the many wardrobes lining the walls. The social corset in which this village society is squeezed into in the Swiss Alps becomes apparent immediately. A clever mid-stage drop transforms the hall into the bedroom where the sleepwalking drama takes place.

Venera Gimadieva (Amina) and Helene Schneiderman (Teresa) © Bernd Uhlig
Venera Gimadieva (Amina) and Helene Schneiderman (Teresa)
© Bernd Uhlig

Here, then, the story unfolds around Amina, an orphan raised by a foster mother, who is set to marry Elvino, a rich farmer and the most eligible bachelor in the village. The notary has already drawn up the marriage contract and the church wedding is to take place the next day when an elegant stranger arrives who turns out to be the local Count’s son who had left years before for no known reason. Wieler and Morabito help the audience put two and two together by creating the role of Amina’s mother – disgraced and ostracised, now the village ghost as she forages for food at night – who occasionally meanders through the set. In the end, it is also clear that the stranger, Rodolfo, is the Count’s son and father of Amina. But before, Amina sleepwalks into the stranger’s room and loses her “innocence” made visible by a bloodstain on her gown. Elvino thereupon rejects Amina, turns around to Lisa, the innkeeper and his former girlfriend, with the intention of marrying her instead. Even though Rodolfo and the villagers attest to Amina’s innocence, it is only when Elvino and everyone else actually sees her sleepwalking (and singing her famous aria), that the happy ending of this opera semiseria can take place.

Ante Jerkunica (Rodolfo) and Venera Gimadieva (Amina) © Bernd Uhlig
Ante Jerkunica (Rodolfo) and Venera Gimadieva (Amina)
© Bernd Uhlig

Wieler and Morabito excel at working out the personality details of each character. This is most visible in the role of Teresa, the foster mother. Helene Schneiderman, who also sang in the Stuttgart production, relishes these details – mutely commenting on social conventions with just a look or gesture, using her best white handbag as a weapon, making sure that the marriage contract is correct by signing it herself, her one aim clear: make Amina a married lady and give her an identity. Jesús León embodied an Elvino who is surely more attractive because of his properties than his personality – after all, his jealousy of Rodolfo and his reluctance to even consider Amina’s innocence do not endear him to us. León’s vocal abilities reflect these traits with a strangely thin, less substantial voice with a metallic timbre. Contrast it with Ante Jerkunica’s elegant appearance and natural authority as Count Rodolfo, expressed with a smooth and glossy, dark bass, and it is clear who gets more appreciation. Alexandra Hutton made the most of the role of Lisa, the attractive innkeeper, with a clear soprano able to be flighty, seductive or angry as this character requires.

Stephan Zilias had stepped onto the podium as a last minute replacement for Diego Fasolis, who had resigned. Although such a change is always unsettling to the ensemble, Zilias conducted the excellent Deutsche Oper Chorus, Orchestra and soloists with assurance and underscored the bel canto melodies for which Bellini is known.

But this production is dominated by the interpretation and details with which Wieler and Morabito flesh out the various characters – each one a personality in this theatrical evening.

****1