What was it with the demons? Even before maestro Maurizio Benini could coax a squeak out of the Teatro Real orchestra, we were presented with the heroine sonnambulist, Amina, unsurprisingly, sleepwalking. Fair enough. The clue to the action is in the title. 

But what’s with this corps de ballet, ten demons, tormenting her, throwing her hither and thither in anguish in pulsing rhythms reminiscent of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring? They then periodically haunted her throughout the performance. 

Vincenzo Bellini wrote La Sonnambula in 1831, at the height of sleepwalking frenzy, when a mid 19th century obsession with psychic mysteries was in flood. There is no suggestion that possession had anything to do with Amina’s state of mind. She is troubled because she is unsure of her lover Elvino’s intentions. 

Amina was wearing a strange headdress constructed from Druidic twigs, as though this was all part of a pagan forest ritual. Come on. We are in a po-faced, Swiss Alpine village where any passing Druid would have been blasted off with a cow-horn and told to buy his Toblerone elsewhere.

Then, there were the washing lines. The set was constructed with clothes ropes from which hung – or sometimes fell off – huge linen sheets, bearing almost illegible symbols. More Druidic ritual? The subtle shifting of the washing signified a scene change. From local inn, to Count Rodolfo’s room, the exterior of his castle and a village scene.

I suppose the sheets could be forgiven on the grounds of economy. But, this is not an expensive opera to stage with bare, conventional scenery. The peasant chorus got entangled with the washing de temps en temps. Distracting.

Then, there was the elephant in this production. The dénouement. Spoiler alert. In the final scene Amina, who has been sleepwalking, wakes in Elvino’s arms, when he and the villagers accept she has not been compromised by Count Rodolfo. 

Only, she didn’t. Although that’s the version in the Teatro Real programme, it’s not what happened on stage. Amina, perched on a vertiginous balcony, woke up and decided to jump, presumably to her death. The lights went out as she made her leap – never executed, as she appeared moments later to take her bows. What possessed Director, Bárbara Lluch, to do that? 

I asked my neighbour if I had missed something. Dozed off in the last seconds perhaps. Missed the lovers reconciliation. “Ella saltó.” “She jumped”. He was unfamiliar with the piece and thought it very sad. He should have been exiting Teatro Real with a skip and a jump. Now, I am tolerant of directors taking liberties. But, turning La Sonnambula into a tragedy? 

Lluch, a stage director from Barcelona, is the granddaughter of Núria Espert, a “great” of stagecraft and daughter of producer, Alicia Moreno. Wanting to escape her heritage, she ran away. To Covent Garden, as one does! There, she spent ten years as an assistant director. She openly admits to suffering “gender violence” alcohol and substance addiction and La Sonnambula is her first production.

In her own words: “When you take an opera from 200 years ago, you have to have a social responsibility. You cannot defend any abuse on stage, you have to position yourself and, respecting the script and the music, defend the heroine, make a decision and be brave.”

I don’t understand any of that gobbledygook. Good luck, Bárbara, when you’re asked to stage Don Giovanni. Why did Amina jump? “A person like Amina is beaten and mistreated and cannot marry her aggressor. I had a relationship in which I had to involve the police, my ex-boyfriend abused me, do I defend a scenario – the happy ending of La Sonnambula – that I could get back together with the person and and that it’s okay?” 

No. I really do not agree that a director should saddle their productions with their personal baggage, no matter how uncomfortable.

I was right, Amina jumped. Maybe if Lluch directs Don Giovanni, the rascal will be redeemed and the Commendatore consigned to the fiery pit. Frankly, this imposition of bitter self experience on operatic performance is ridiculous. What demons might entrant terrible director Peter Sellars summon, given half a chance?

Thank God the voices were amazing. Bellini’s score pins the ears back and requires the very best lyric soprano to nail the cascade of impossible High C’s. 

Amina’s testing role was taken on by Jessica Pratt, a British born, now Australian, soprano. It was worth the journey to Madrid to hear her performance alone. Her go-to role is Lucia in Donizetti’s  Lucia de Lammermoor, which she has performed over one hundred times. Amina is a similarly testing singing and acting challenge.

To which Pratt rose magnificently. Tragic heroines are her speciality and, certainly, Lluch added tragedy to the traditional Amina role in the dying moments of the opera.

Serena Sáenz, the Spanish soprano who sang Lisa, has been described in Scherzo magazine as having “good taste in ornamentation and luminous high notes with an arsenal of bel canto resources”. I thought she was wondrous. Yet  another 29 year old young artist who can go toe to toe with world acclaimed divas.

To luminous, I would add, penetrating. At the top of her range delivery never faltered. She needed to make no compromise in tone to scale the heights.

Italian tenor, Francesco Demuro, sang Elvino. He has an international presence, spanning La Scala, Milan, London’s Covent Garden and The Metropolitan Opera, New York. Small wonder he is in such demand. The fluency of his voice is magical. And he portrayed the character of the lover troubled by his fiancés possible infidelity beautifully. 

Count Rodolfo was Argentinian bass baritone, Fernando Radó. He is well established on the international stage, having studied under Daniel Barenboim then winning the 2009 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World award.

Teresa was sung by German mezzo-soprano Gemma Coma-Alabert. She was brilliant with the handkerchief – an essential prop, of which more to come – and also in her support of her friend Amina. Her career spans opera and concert appearances and she is particularly popular with Spanish opera houses’ casting directors. Apart for Teatro Real, she has graced the Palau de les Art, Valencia, Ópera de Bilbao, Ópera de Oviedo and Ópera de Catalunya. 

I wonder if there is a mafia of Spanish casting directors? If so, they are on the money having found Coma-Alabert.

Musical direction was in the reliable hands of Maurizio Benini, a maestro of international renown. He has conducted La Sonnambula at New York’s Met and brought an elan to Bellini’s flowing score. I would love to know what he thought of the plot twist at the finale. The back of his head betrayed nothing.

Time for the plot. We are in the traditional, close-knit community of an Alpine village. It is a simple place where loyalties are strong and traditions valued. Amina is the village’s heroine and she is to marry Elvino. Lisa, owner of the local inn and general fly in the happy ointment, is in love with Elvino, with whom she had a relationship. Until Amina came along. I can’t help feeling this conflict is the grit in Lluch’s oyster.

The local count has gone missing years ago, but an anonymous stranger appears, Rodolfo. Any villager who does not suss immediately he is the lost aristo deserves a permanent post as idiot. There is talk of a ghost walking through the village at night.

Inside the inn, Lisa flirts with Rodolfo, telling him he’s been recognised and will be welcomed by the villagers. And, obviously, her. Big fuss, whether he likes it or not. A noise outside – the ghost – causes Lisa to run away and she drops her handkerchief. THIS IS SIGNIFICANT. There was much amusing flourishing of the handkerchief. No casual drop. We got it.  Suivez le handkerchief. 

Sound asleep, Amina enters the room. Rodolfo ponders taking advantage of her, but thinks better of it. Lisa and the villagers pitch up, find Amina lying on the bed and think the worst. Teresa, Amina’s bestie, remains by her side when Amina wakes up, finds THE HANDKERCHIEF, thinks it is Amina’s and ties it around her own neck as a sign of fondness. Why? Not a clue.

In Act II a “Save Amina” committee of villagers has been got up to go to the castle, a.k.a. the large sheet hanging stage left, to ask Count Rodolfo to prove Amina’s innocence. Amina and Teresa join the throng. En route they meet Elvino, who turns out to be a bit of a judgemental plonker, taking back his engagement ring. Amina faints.

Elvino, now proving himself a perverse plonker, decides to marry Lisa to spite Amina. As they reach the marriage temple, a.k.a. the large sheet hanging stage centre, Rodolfo appears and explains Amina is innocent. He declares that the word of a count should be believed without question, but Elvino is having none of it.

Pressed as to how Amina ended up in his room, Rodolfo references sleepwalking. “Phooey, tosh, drivel” says, well, almost everyone. “Isn’t that Harry’s excuse for writing Spare”? Sleep-writing is another well known 19th century phenomenon, now extended to the 21st. Or, would that be ghost-writing? There’s an opera in that – Harry-Kiri. An idea stolen from my friend, Andrew Neil.

Lisa is going to marry Elvino and boasts that at least she has not been caught with other men. Teresa produces THE HANDKERCHIEF belonging to Lisa with a flourish to prove she, too, was in Rodolfo’s room. There is a plot weakness here. How Teresa sussed the HANDKERCHIEF she originally thought belonged to Amina really was Lisa’s is unexplained.

Elvino, now seemingly a cuckold squared, suddenly sees Amina sleepwalking on a vertiginous balcony, contemplating the fruitlessness of life. Rodolfo encourages Elvino to return the ring, Amina wakes up and falls into his arms. But, in Madrid, she throws a “me, too” tantrum and jumps to her death. 

Bellini’s other well known operas, Norma, and I puritani, share the flowing music of La Sonnambula, and risk being dismissed as lightweight on that account. But all have a serious underlying purpose. La Sonnambula explores the increasing questioning of aristocratic authority. Count Rodolfo’s unexpected return may have been celebrated, but his denial of an inappropriate relationship with Amina is not. The peasants are stirring.

The sleepwalking phenomenon was all the rage – Lady Macbeth’s famous scene in Verdi’s Macbeth – and was referenced in a bizarre litter of academic papers talking tosh, from possession by spirits to communicating with aliens.

I really do not understand why musical directors of Bernini’s distinction do not stand up to producers who embark on opera-destroying frolics of their own. This was Lluch’s La Sonnambula, not Bellini’s. Nor why opera houses carelessly publish a synopsis entirely at odds with the action. Sloppy work.

That one last moment marred a performance that was in most other respects spectacular. It will be interesting to follow the chaos on which Lluch next embarks, if she is afforded the opportunity by any other opera house.

Write to us with your comments to be considered for publication at letters@reaction.life