Opera in a Days Bay Garden
La Sonnambula (Bellini)
Conductor: Mark Carter; producer and director: Rhona Fraser
Cast: Natasha Wilson (Lisa), Morgan-Andrew King (Alessio), Rhona Fraser (Teresa), Elizabeth Mandeno (Amina), Lila Crichton (Notary), Andrew Grenon (Elvino), James Ioelu (Count Rodolfo).
Chorus: Jemma Chester, Emily Yeap, Sinéad Keane, Olivia Stewart, Simon Hernyak, Samuel McKeever, Patrick Shanahan, Alica Carter
Canna House, Days Bay, Wellington
Friday 12 February, 5:30 pm
In common with most of the world, Bellini is no longer a famous composer in New Zealand; his operas are now rarely performed. Of Bellini’s operas only Norma gets much attention. I’m only aware of Canterbury Opera’s production of it in 2002, since its last professional production by a touring company in 1928.
However, in 2016 Rhona Fraser’s Opera in a Days Bay Garden was responsible for a somewhat rarer Bellini opera – the story that Shakespeare had used in Romeo and Juliet –I Capuleti e i Montecchi; which was staged by Auckland Studio Opera in 2018.
After two productions in 2017 – Handel’s Theodora and Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin – Rhona and her husband have been away for two years, in Germany. They returned last year and Rhona seems determined to resume the professional production of interesting operas. Her enterprise has been very missed.
Hers is just one of the small opera groups around the country which, very unevenly, offer opportunities for the public to discover opera and for advanced, mainly young singers, to gain first-class experience. None of these small companies, some, like Days Bay, fully professional, has attracted financial or other significant help from central or local government and few have lasted more than a couple of years.
If anything, there is less amateur or small-scale professional opera in New Zealand than there was 20 years ago, when, for example, both the Victoria University School of Music and the then Wellington Polytechnic Conservatorium produced an opera every year; now Victoria alone produces an opera every other year.
La sonnambula’s history
Now, Days Bay Opera has brought one of Bellini’s most popular operas, La sonnambula, back to life, though this time, Auckland Opera Studio has been first with it, in 2011, The last previous production was in 1881. More interesting still is the fact that Sonnambula was just the second opera, after Donizetti’s Daughter of the Regiment, to be performed in New Zealand: in 1862. Adrienne Simpson’s splendid history of opera in New Zealand (Opera’s farthest Frontier) records these and a couple of now forgotten English operas in the amateurish English Opera Troupe’s historic productions in the make-shift Royal Princess Theatre in Dunedin.
And the book records that in 1863 the company brought Sonnambula to Wellington: absolutely the first opera in Wellington.
Fine, warm weather offered a delightful environment for the first (and the other two) performances on the lawn below the house and narrow terraces on which the audience sat, The tree-filled garden surrounded by beech forest create what might be the most unique opera setting in the world.
The opera’s staging, created by Rhona Fraser, was contemporary, with a limited number of seats and other props, and with costumes that spoke more of the attitudes and situations of the characters than of their period. The orchestra comprised thirteen players, led by Anne Loeser and conducted by Mark Carter, was somewhat behind and to the left of the audienec; inevitably, it was bit remote for some of the audience.
During the brief prelude an ill-tempered Lisa (Natasha Wilson) is tidying and cleaning impatiently, though her vivid singing and acting showed a more charming character. But that was not in relation to any member of the chorus; especially, she flaunted contempt for the heedless Alessio, rich-voiced baritone Morgan-Andrew King, who gained attention at the recent Whanganui Opera School. She rejects his love: any qualms about his beard or rude appearance must be set aside in our age of unorthodoxy.
The coming marriage between Amina and Elvino is heralded by the arrival of the Notary (the impressive Samoan bass Lila Crichton).
The opera really took off with the arrival of Amina (Elizabeth Mandeno), and her first big aria, “Come per me sereno” and the cabaletta “Sovra il sen la man” rejoicing in her expected marriage to Elvino. His voice, with his moving greeting “Perdona, o mia diletta”, picking up later with “Prendi: a’nel ti dono”, was agreeable though his demeanour might have fallen short of his propertied standing; however, he portrayed a credibly decent chap. Though one might wonder, as the story evolves, how someone so improbably sensitive could have gained his reputation in the village.
Rodolfo, the Count (James Ioelu), arrives, presenting an imposing demeanour and vocal confidence, all the signs of small-time nobility which he shows through fundamental decency.
The ensemble of villagers has its significant role throughout. In an interesting later episode the villagers in an effective evocation tell Rodolfo of the phantom that locals see at midnight, “Udite, a fosca cielo”,
Elvino and misplaced jealousy
Scene I of Act I ends with Elvino, prompted by the Count making flattering gestures to Amina, confessing to Amina his uncontrollable jealousy, his “Son geloso del zefiro errante” was a curious revelation.
Even though Amina convinces Elvino that his jealousy is misplaced and peace reigns, in scene ii she sleep-walks into Rodolfo’s room at Lisa’s inn (here an AirBNB), and there’s a tentative attraction between them. Amina’s entry, sleep-walking, changes everything; she sees Rodolfo as Elvino and throws herself at him but he gets out before Elvino and the villagers arrive. However, there is Amina, now in Rodolfo’s bed, and no sleep-walking excuse (they’ve never heard of somnambulism) persuades any of the villagers that things are different from what they seem.
It was a splendid scene. Even if suspended at a very high level of improbability and absurdity, it was both dramatic and funny. Throughout, Amina’s foster-mother Teresa (Rhona Fraser), exhibiting calm sanity and in excellent voice in all her several episodes, remains faithful to her, even, one supposes, if Amina were guilty.
At the beginning of the second scene of Act II, Natasha Wilson, as Lisa, plays a vividly stylish part, now seeing herself as the likely winner, able to capture Elvino for herself, and her short, tight white dress illuminated her expectations; she adorns it with a white veil.
The suspense, awaiting Rodolfo’s explanation to the villagers and specifically to Elvino about the nature of somnambulism is protracted. It’s clinched by Amina’s walking along a riskless board between rows of audience (instead of on a fragile plank above the mill-wheels on the river). The last scene eventually brings an understanding of “sleep-walking” and Amina’s singing at the end is plaintive and moving.
Though sung in Italian, the notes in the programme were sufficient for those new to the work to understand – in any case, the Italian from all singers was admirably clear. Accepting the limitations fundamental to the out-doors setting and various sound and production constraints, the entire performance was admirable and completely enjoyable. Rhona Fraser is warmly welcome back in New Zealand.
If you missed this one, don’t hesitate to book early for the next.
For the record, these are the operas Days Bay has produced so far:
2010 The Marriage of Figaro
2010 The Journey to Rheims (Rossini)
2012 Alcina (Handel)
2012 Maria Stuarda (Donizetti)
2013 Cosi fan tutte
2013 L’oca del Cairo (Mozart)
2014 Der Rosenkavalier
2015 Calisto (Cavalli)
2016 Agrippina (Handel)
2016 I Capuleti e i Montecchi (Bellini)
2017 Theodora (Handel)
2017 Eugene Onegin
2021 La sonnambula