Metropolitan Opera House
March 14, 2009
by Vincenzo Bellini
libretto Felice Romani
Amina – Natalie Dessay
Elvino – Juan Diego Flórez
Rodolfo – Michele Pertusi
Lisa – Jennifer Black
Teresa – Jane Bunnell
Alessio – Jeremy Galyon
Notary – Bernard Fitch
Met Opera Orchestra, Evelino Pidò, conducto
Production – Mary Zimmerman
Set Designer – Daniel Ostling
Costume Designer – Mara Blumenfeld
Lighting Designer – T. J. Gerckens
Choreographer – Daniel Pelzig
An immense success in its first production in 1831 as well as in its first performances at the Met (1883), La Sonnambula’s popularity waned—at the Met at least—after the First World War. In later revivals, it was presented as a vehicle for sopranos who could fully exploit the florid ornament of Bellini’s writing for its heroine, Amina. Twenty-eight years elapsed between Lily Pons’ last performance of the role in 1935 and Joan Sutherland’s first appearance in it in 1963, which was hailed as the revival of the lost art of bel canto. It held its own at the Met as long as Sutherland performed it, that is, until 1969. Three years later Renata Scotto brought a more dramatic approach to Amina, but her performances of the role never went beyond the 1972 season. Only this year, 37 years later, has the opera been revived, with Natalie Dessay, who enters the role with her own mélange of satisfying musicality, dramatic energy, and charismatic charm, in an unconventional production by Mary Zimmerman, which has attracted a storm of vociferous criticism.
La Sonnambula’s original success depended on a careful balance of specific circumstances—estimation of the competition, choice of genre and subject, the writing of the principle parts for the most admired soloists of the time; and the collaboration between Bellini, his backers, the librettist Romani, with whom he had worked many times before, and the singers was extremely close—similar to the way musical commissions are carried out today, but focused on commercial success. In 1831 Bellini had been working on an Ernani after Victor Hugo, but, knowing that Donizetti was about to stage an Anna Bolena, he decided not to confront his competitor head on with another grand tragedy, but to take up a lighter genre, an opera semiseria, based on a successful ballet of 1827, La Somnambule.
Romani changed the setting from Provence to a Swiss village, a locality familiar to wealthy tourists and admirers of Rossini, who had recently closed his career with a Swiss historical subject. It tells the story of simple villagers, Amina and Elvino, who are about to get married. Their life conveniently revolves around the local inn, where the celebrations are to take place. The innkeeper, Lisa, has previously been engaged to Elvino, and is the only person among the villagers who is not filled with admiration for Amina’s beauty and virtue. A mysterious traveller, Rodolfo, arrives and takes a room at the inn. Curiously, the village is familiar to him and conjures up pleasant memories. Lisa figures out that Rodolfo is the son of the local count. That night in his room, an intimacy begins, interrupted by Amina, who is walking in her sleep. Lisa hides in the closet, dropping her scarf, while Amina lies down on the count’s bed and falls asleep. The ensuing conflict, in which Amina’s virtue is compromised, the villagers accuse her, and Elvino cancels the marriage. Of course none of these people know about sleepwalking. Lisa takes advantage of the situation and renews her engagement to Elvino. Poor Amina is miserable. The next day the villagers realize that they acted in haste and approach Rodolfo, who confirms Amina’s innocence. At first Elvino refuses to pay attention, but Amina reappears, sleepwalking, singing about her distress and dreaming of her marriage to Elvino. Lisa’s deception is exposed, and Amina is vindicated. The opera concludes with a joyful chorus anticipating the nuptials which were to have occurred at the beginning.
Of course stories about complications in the lives of simple people are as popular today as they were in the Romantic period, although, perhaps, not in opera, and then more in terms of Porgy and Bess, Wozzeck and Marie, Tony and Maria, or George and Lennie, rather than Swiss villagers in their tidy peasant costumes. For tourists in Switzerland the village inn has long been replaced by slick, highly professionalized hotels. What traveller today lounges about the village inn or strolls its streets? How to present La Sonnambula without choking the audience with Swiss kitsch and nostalgia for things long beyond the memory, let alone the experience of most people? (Remember that La Sonnambula has reappeared only when there was a soprano who could bring off Amina.)
Mary Zimmerman is well aware of all this and has decided to present the opera as a backstage musical, or a rehearsal for a production of the opera, in which the participants experience the same relationships and and entanglements as the characters they perform. This is of course not a terribly original idea in itself, and the complications of the added layer did not exactly reinforce the clarity of the of the story. Still, I thought it made for an entertaining show, and I especially enjoyed Zimmerman’s hommage to the great Jean Vigo’s Zéro de Conduite. Daniel Ostling’s handsome set, T. J. Gerckens’s glowing lighting, Daniel Pelzig’s choreography, and the impeccable, even virtuosic execution of extremely complex scenes made it all the more accessible, if not entirely convincing. I was aided in this by avoiding reading her essay about the production until after the performance was over. When I finally did read this somewhat doughy and occasionally obscure bit of prose, I began to like the production less. There was just enough preening in it and just enough condescension to put me on my guard. Do we need all this sophistication in La Sonnambula, when what we’re really interested in is the vulnerability of the characters (Amina’s above all.), their transient emotions, and Bellini’s delightful music? Of course not…and all that stage business was more of a distraction from those simple relationships and emotions than an expansion of them.
I have to confess that most of my energy went into listening rather than watching and interpreting. Evelino Pidò produced clean, energetic, and expressive playing from the Met Orchestra, a sparkling accompaniment for a consistently admirable cast of singers. Like this season’s production of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, La Sonnambula enjoyed the benefits of the felicitous technical and dramatic approach to bel canto opera which has evolved over the past sixty years. Singers and conductors, balancing and merging the styles of Callas and Sutherland, know how to bring out the dramatic and emotive core of the pretty melodies and the impressive ornament. Singers like Netrebko, Beczała, Dessay, and Flórez can all elicit a moving expressivity in both the straightforwardly melodic and the virtuosic elements of their parts. Natalie Dessay is more a Callas than a Sutherland, if of a more cheerful, extraverted sort. Showmanship, a virtuosity on her own terms, and genuine dramatic perception give her an exceptional authority in this music today, but at the Met she is not its only exponent. I think we are fortunate that we can simply listen, admire, and be moved by bel canto opera, rather than perceiving it as a lost art revived by a Verdian transfusion or a meticulously reconstructed technical specialism. Juan Diego Flórez addressed Elvino with a very light, bright, but mellow tenor and a fine sense of style. Jane Bunnell offered a vivid and variegated Teresa, and Jennifer Black brought nuance and depth to the villainess Lisa, who was in this production, mind you, both an innkeeper and a stage director. Bass Michele Pertusi sang Rodolfo with wit and elegance, projecting just the right désinvolture as a slightly spoiled aristocrat who is fundamentally a decent fellow.
I left the Met’s new production of La Sonnambula in high spirits after a musically impeccable and dramatically interesting evening. Mary Zimmerman may have labored a bit too earnestly on it, but she also knows how to have fun, and that, I believe, saved her part of the show in the end. The musicians needed no apologies.