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Dreams and Imaginations

New York
The Metropolitan Opera
03/02/2009 -  and March 6, 11, 14, 18, 21, 24*, 28, April 3, 2009
Vincenzo Bellini: La Sonnambula
Natalie Dessay (Amina), Juan Diego Flórez (Elvino), Michele Pertusi (Rodolfo), Jennifer Black (Lisa), Jane Bunnell (Teresa), Bernard Fitch (Notary), Jeremy Galyon (Alessio)
Donald Palumbo (Chorus Master), Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Evelino Pidò (Conductor)
Mary Zimmerman (Production), Daniel Ostling (Set Design), Mara Blumenfeld (Costume Designer), T. J. Gerckens (Lighting Designer), Daniel Pelzig (Choreographer)

The good news is very good indeed. Natalie Dessay and Juan Diego Flórez, an extraordinary pairing who turned in brilliant performances last season in Donizetti’s La Fille du régiment are back at the Met. And both are in superb voice, singing with a tenderness and vulnerability that were enchanting, and technique that was predictably astounding. Mr. Flórez, in particular, was in fine voice. There were also excellent performances from the supporting cast, the chorus, and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, at its lyrical best, under the baton of Evelino Pidò.

For years, modern productions of La Sonnambula have been rather thin on the ground. The Met hasn’t staged the opera for thirty-seven years. Its last production was a showcase for Joan Sutherland and then Renata Scotto. Across the Atlantic, things have been much the same. Covent Garden waited twenty years before mounting a production in 2002, and that one came by way of the Vienna State Opera. The reluctance stems not from dissatisfaction with the music; rather, it’s the thin and rather silly plot that presents the challenge for modern audiences.

The story of Bellini’s lyrical masterpiece is simple. Amina, an orphan, raised in a Swiss village by the kindly Teresa, has fallen in love with the wealthy landowner, Elvino, and he with her. He gives her a ring and all seems headed for the perfect (and rare in opera) happy ending, until Amina is found in the bed of a visiting count. She has no idea how she got there, and she vigorously protests her innocence. But no one believes her. Elvino breaks off the engagement. The villagers turn against Amina. The truth is that she had been sleepwalking. When Amina takes a second stroll while fast asleep, Elvino and the villagers are witnesses. All is forgiven and the two lovers marry.

Peter Gelb, the general manager of the Met, has made it clear that he wants first rate directors with reputations in theater and film to work with his top class singers. One of these, Mary Zimmerman, directed Dessay in Lucia earlier this season. The two collaborated again on La Sonnambula. The production team was heartily booed on opening night. While this sort of occurrence may be common in Europe, it is extremely rare at the Met. Indeed, the hostile audience reception made headlines across the country.

So what went wrong? Ms. Zimmerman has said that she had been prepared to go forward with a traditional production with lots of Swiss village charm, but that Ms. Dessay was adamantly opposed to her plan. So, Zimmerman came up with a new idea-- staging the opera in a big city rehearsal hall with the two principals, Amina and Elvino, as singers who happen to be in love. In an essay in the Met’s program, Ms. Zimmerman wrote that she wanted to approximate the dream state in which “multiple realities peacefully co-exist” as well as embody the nature of the stage itself – where events and characters are simultaneously real and unreal. Her ideas sound intriguing but, in practice, for this opera, they just didn’t work.

The production seemed to have a rather paradoxical effect: instead of distracting attention from what Zimmerman has called "Bellini’s light” and “rather incredible” plot, the production called attention to it, and detracted from the music. Instead of being swept away by the exquisite lyricism of Bellini’s poignant melodies, my attention was constantly drawn back to the plot. What was really going on? Were the performers in the studio singing about their own love difficulties or were they merely rehearsing? Who exactly was the Count and why was he spending the night in a bed that materialized in the studio? What was the chorus up to? If they were part of a 21st century opera company, why were they so shocked at Amina’s alleged infidelity? And why did they trash the studio at the end of the first act, dismantling the bed, ripping up their scores, and throwing garbage on the floor, only to pick it up again at the beginning of act two?

Confusion and distraction were not the only production-induced problems. Somehow along the way, Bellini’s tender and poignant love story metamorphosed into a comedy. One can easily see the major reason for this. As anyone knows who was fortunate enough to see and hear Natalie Dessay in La Fille du régiment, she is a brilliant comedienne. Ms. Dessay got a lot of laughs, but often at the music’s expense. As Zimmerman staged the climax of Amina’s first aria, a moment of joy at her engagement became instead an occasion for a temper tantrum during which she threw a collection of wigs all over the stage. Worse was to come at the end of act two. Before her heartbreaking aria, “Ah! non credea mirarti”, Ms. Dessay interrupted the proceedings by writing the word “aria” on a blackboard. The mood was dashed. In the final scene, with its brilliant coloratura piece, “Ah! non giunge”, in what seemed like a slap in the face at tradition-minded audience members, Ms. Zimmerman staged the wedding celebration in an over-the–top operetta-like manner, in full Swiss village attire as if to say, “If we had done it your way, it would have looked just like this.”

There was one stunning dramatic moment in the production – Amina’s entrance during the first sleepwalking scene. Ms. Dessay entered through the rear of the orchestra, and seemed to float down the aisle like an otherworldly vision. Ms. Zimmerman made another good decision: When Amina and Elvino sang together, for the most part there was minimal stage business and dramatic lighting. The result was a moving and beautiful performance full of sweetness, tenderness and grand singing. So, ironically, the best part of Zimmerman’s production occurred when the audience could forget all about her complicated and confusing conceptions, and concentrate on the music.

Arlene Judith Klotzko



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