Charming and clever La Sonnambula, Buxton International Festival


Ellie Neate as Lisa (foreground) with cast in Buxton International Festival's La sonnambula. Credit Genevieve Girling

Ellie Neate and cast of La Sonnambula

As a newcomer to Buxton this was a joyful introduction to the International Festival and also the jewel of an opera house both of which demonstrated why this annual event has such a dedicated following and excellent reputation.

Harry Fehr’s production of Bellini’s La Sonnambula is here given full rein as a comedy and also a showcase for exquisite singing but also has something to say about the role of women and treatment of women by not only men but their judgemental communities. He succeeds where many fail, in taking a well-known opera, bringing something new, and making it work. The direction, using a valid concept with great care for the music, singing and libretto, triumphs.

We are transposed from Victorian times to a 60s factory canteen, think a cross between Dinner Ladies and Made in Dagenham with a versatile set by Nicky Shaw and fun costume design by Zahra Mansouri, all lit by Jake Wiltshire. The engagement party for the factory owner Elvino and one of the employees Amina is taking place in the canteen. However, all is not well, unhappy Lisa is looking for a man and not just any man as she rejects a lovely young suitor and her eyes light up when a dashing stranger Rodolfo arrives in town clutching his ordinance survey map looking for a castle he used to know.

Simon Shibambu and Ziyi Dai in La Sonnambula at Buxton Opera House. Photo: Genevieve Girling

Simon Shibambu and Ziyi Dai

Jolly (there are other more judgemental terms) Lisa grabs her chance, gives him a bed for the night and tries to seduce him including taking off her red knickers which are used as evidence later of her guilt and Amina’s innocence when, as the sleepwalker, she is found in his bed. Just as Lisa manages to get Elvivo to agree to marry her instead of Amina, Rodolfo arrives and in a (feigned) sleeping walking episode shows Amina really is innocent.

There is a twist at the end which Fehr manages very cleverly without making nonsense of the libretto which normally announces reconciliation and a happy ending between Elvino and Amina after she genuinely wanders in sleepwalking. Shall we just say the men and whole community are left scratching their heads at where the two women are off to. Maybe Rodolfo can tell them.

This would all be fun and interesting but what sets it apart is the fabulous bel canto from Ziyi Dai in the title role. She acts the role perfectly, balancing innocence with nervousness, is totally convincing as a sleepwalker, and then turns into a sensible modern gal who is taking no more from her partner and colleagues. She thrills with Bellini’s demands, rising effortlessly above the orchestra with those so demanding high notes. We also have sparkling singing and cheeky acting from Elle Neate as Lisa, a contrasting but complementary singer.

Nico Darmanin and Ziyi Dai

The chorus

Ziyi Dai

The men are no less impressive with Nico Darmanin as a strong and beautifully sung Elvino throughout the performance. He always sings with great passion and in this reading of the work it also displays the rather ridiculous character that he is playing. Simon Shibambu is a refreshingly powerful and serious Rodolfo, although we never really know what the castle and his family is all about, and an appealing Jacob Bettinelli as the love struck suitor Alessio.

It would be a mistake not to mention the Buxton Festival chorus who were in fabulous form and I kept looking at their reactions as the drama unfolded. There was not a moment when they were not fully engaging in what they were doing and seeing. Adrian Kelly similarly kept our attention with an attentive reading of the score that rose and fell from joy to despair, levity to darkness.

Until July 22

Buxton International Festival Il re pastore

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