In Series’ charming ‘La Sonnambula’ haunts the Source

In Series’ charming ‘La Sonnambula’ haunts the Source

Score another hit for the In Series’ latest venture in community “pocket opera.” Bellini has rarely sounded so delightful.

Who's sleeping in Rodolfo's bed?
Who is sleeping in Rodolfo’s bed? The village want to know. L-R, Foreground: Christine Browne-Munz, Mandi Harper; Background: Andrew Pendola, Melissa Chavez, Andrew Sauvageau, Jason Lee, and Eduardo Castro. (Photo by Angelisa Gillyard)

WASHINGTON, January 14, 2015 – Score another hit for the In Series’ latest venture in community “pocket opera.” The music of Vincenzo Bellini has rarely sounded so delightful as it does in the Series’ latest production, an updated take on the composer’s quirky comic opera, “La Sonnambula” (“The Sleepwalker”).

In Series increasingly popular “pocket opera” productions are a grab bag of opportunities, ranging from well-known favorites like Verdi’s “La Traviata” (a big hit last season) to their current production, writer and director Steven Scott Mazzola’s absolutely charming English-language update of Vincenzo Bellini’s neglected opera, which opened last weekend at the Source and will continue through January 25.

Bellini’s gently humorous bel canto classic has been rarely heard here in recent decades, save for a performance several seasons back by the Washington Concert Opera. That’s too bad, given its lavish helping of lovely arias and ensembles.

Amina and Elvino.
Amina (CarrieAnne Winter) and Elvino (Joseph Haughton) are in love. For now. (Credit: Angelisa Gillyard)

But what’s good is that In Series has revived it, trimming its running time a bit, but restoring all its naïve charm and wit. Better yet, this new realization makes the opera seem somehow more intimate and personal by backing it not with a larger orchestra but with an enthusiastic and well-rehearsed chamber ensemble.

This mini-orchestra allows Bellini’s ravishing vocals to come up front and center, a real delight for bel canto opera fans and a revelation to relative opera newbies who may be unfamiliar with the glory of beautiful and blessedly unamplified human vocals.

For this production of “La Sonnambula,” the In Series has optimized both the seating and stage space, allowing this opera a surprising amount of room in which to unfold. Instrumentalists are seated behind a translucent scrim to the rear of the uncluttered stage, maximizing the audience view.

The plot of “La Sonnambula,” as in many a comic opera, borders on the slightly preposterous. But then, again, we have to remember, it was first mounted in 1831, a time when a great many now-scientifically explained phenomena were still regarded as baffling mysteries or—worse—invasions of restless spirits from another dimension.

"La Sonnambula" herself.
The village ghost looks a lot like Amina (CarrieAnne Winter). (Credit: Angelisa Gillyard)

In this production, updated from the 1830s to roughly the early part of the 20th century, our sprightly small-town heroine, Amina (CarrieAnne Winter), is about to be married to her well-off fiancé, Elvino (Joseph Haughton). All seems to be going well as we drop in to Amina’s bucolic village, save for the occasional, troubling appearance of a ghost who walks by night, frightening the townsfolk.

Wedding plans are unexpectedly interrupted when a mysterious but somehow familiar stranger, Captain Rodolfo (Brody DelBeccaro), comes into town and bunks overnight in a room attended to by the bustling, outwardly nice but inwardly devious Lisa (Kimberly Christie).

Lisa—who also has eyes on Elvino and resents Amina for catching him first—discovers she now has eyes for her temporary tenant. Hanging about and eavesdropping, she is surprised to discover that a nightgown-clad Amina has quietly entered his room and appropriated his bed.

Amina, of course, is the mysterious ghost and the opera’s eponymous sleepwalker and has no idea what she’s just done. But Lisa is only too happy to spread the story across town with disastrous consequences for her rival’s upcoming nuptials. Since this is a comic opera, we know, of course, that things will work out in the end. But it’s still amusing to see how this small-town scandal eventually resolves itself.

Over the past two or three seasons, the In Series’ pocket opera casts have been getting better and better, and the current production is no exception.

Elvino discovers Amina in Rodolfo's bed.
Scandal! What’s Amina doing in another man’s bed? Inquiring minds like Elvino want to know. (Credit: Angelisa Gillyard)

As our troubled but good-hearted heroine Amina, soprano CarrieAnne Walker was winsome and convincing and in excellent vocal form as well—crucial for executing Bellini’s lovely, showy, ornament-laden arias. It’s a strenuous role. But Ms. Walker seemed to strain only briefly for a moment as the opera approached its closing moments.

Though he’s not always the sharpest knife in the drawer, Amina’s fiancé Elvino, as portrayed by tenor Joseph Houghton, can perhaps be forgiven for doubting the faithfulness of his beloved, particularly when he learns the whole village has apparently caught her in flagrante in Rodolfo’s chamber. Mr. Houghton’s clean, sure delivery, excellent tone and fine diction as well as his believable characterization of a deeply conflicted lover all contribute greatly to this production’s success.

Lisa and Rodolfo.
Does Lisa (Kimberly Christie) actually have eyes for Rodolfo (Brody DelBeccaro)? (Credit: Angelisa Gillyard)

Soprano Kimberly Christie’s pouty yet still vivacious Lisa adds more than surface interest to this opera and this production. Her sharper delivery and more animated character serve as both contrast and foil to the more complicated character of Amina. Ms. Christie’s sparkling vocals serve to animate this production, providing necessary doses of adversarial energy at just the right moments.

Bass-baritone Brody DelBeccaro’s brooding, serious, reflective Rodolfo brings both gravitas and a sense of mystery to the party. His elegant vocals add a serious, introspective mix to the story, a sensation that’s further enhanced by the authoritative quality projected by his deeply supported instrument.

Other singers provide additional support to the main cast. Among them, mezzo-soprano Patricia Portillo. As Amina’s mother, Teresa, Ms. Portillo contributes fine vocals and a nice sense of comic timing to key scenes in this production.

The In Series chorus was exceptionally polished in this production, with surprisingly good diction and accurate intonation, something that must have been a challenge in a production where the conductor was not always clearly visible.

While occasionally veering off the beat, he small chamber ensemble, under the crisp direction of music director Stanley Thurston sounded quite good on opening night, contributing to the fine overall sound of the production.

La Sonnambula finale.
Saving La Sonnambula. L-R: Brody DelBeccaro, Patricia Portillo, Joseph Houghton, CarrieAnne Winter. (Credit: Angelisa Gillyard)

In short, we give a warm hat tip to the In Series’ “La Sonnambula.” From its charming, minimalist sets to the quality of its singing and chamber orchestra backup, this is as good a production of Bellini’s small masterpiece as you’re likely to see unless you can catch a performance by a major opera company at five times the price of this one—if you can find it.

Rating: *** (3 out of 4 stars)

The In Series’ production of Bellini’s “La Sonnambula” continues for four additional performances: January 15 at 7:30 p.m., January 17 at 8:00 p.m., January 23 at 8:00 p.m., and January 25 at 2:30 p.m. (matinee) at the Source, 1835 14th Street NW, Washington, DC.

Note: As there’s always a possibility of sudden snowstorms at this time of year, alternate performance dates, in case of inclement weather, are January 18, 19, and 24 at 7:30 p.m., plus an additional January 24 matinee at 4:00 p.m.

Tickets and information: Ticket prices range from $42 for general admission to $39 (seniors) and $22 (student). For more information and to purchase tickets to upcoming performances, call the box office at 202-204-7760, or visit the In Series website.

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Terry Ponick
Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17