Tuesday, March 03, 2009

The blunder

La Sonnambula -- Metropolitan Opera, 3/2/09
Dessay, Florez, Pertusi, Black / Pido

Mary Zimmerman's new Met production of Sonnambula is an interesting, engrossing, happily sung, mostly subtle, sometimes brilliant effort undone by its concluding spit in the audience's face.

Like her Lucia, Zimmerman's basic method was to translate the scenic elements to those more vividly graspable by modern audiences. For the Donizetti that meant moving 17th century Scotland to the Victorian era; in this Bellini piece she took the more drastic step of shifting the action from a Swiss village of its time to an urban rehearsal space today, with the participants somehow mounting a traditional peasant-costumes-and-all production of La Sonnambula while enacting its exact emotional to-and-fro among themselves in life.

This conceit makes less sense the more one looks at it, but for all that it basically works. The pastoral genre is now more or less alien, so why not -- as Zimmerman has done -- substitute (or, rather, blend) the backstage piece? It's a familiar enough genre these days, and though not quite an obvious substitution, the well-crafted and very specific personenregie it allows here suffuses the proceedings with a disarmingly daffy -- and appropriate -- charm.

Best, I think, is the work the setting does for the two leads -- and their characters. Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Florez has never, I think, been well fit for the alternating swaggering and buffo tenorism that have made the bulk of his previous parts: his presence seems to me too slight in the former and (therefore) too easily reduced by the latter. But this part (Elvino), in this production, engages him in the most winning and emotionally powerful way yet seen -- and in fact I believe this, not last season's gimmicky Fille, was his finest hour here.

Like Dessay, Florez appears onstage first as a star -- one of the luminaries of the production-within-the-production. He's mostly his usual charming self, with tweaks making him a bit cool (the well-fit leather jacket of the first scene is a nice contrasting look for him) and a bit starched (plain pants, shoes, and white shirt) as well. But these more recognizably masculine signs dovetail nicely with the remarkable zest and conviction with which he sings as the emotions pile up, from the first scene's closing farewell duet on. Elvino runs through extremes of adoration, jealousy, perceived betrayal, hurt, vengeful anger, and regret, and though these dramatic states (comparable to the trajectory of, say, Edgardo in Lucia) at times touch the limits of his voice's light-lyric coloration, Florez carries them -- and their attendant floridity and high notes -- off with such strong and admirable panache that, caught up in his suffering, one forgets that half the opera is about Elvino's bullheadedness.

Natalie Dessay's part is even more -- and cleverly -- tweaked to her own persona. The extreme... unassertiveness of Amina's (waking) nature is not only a potential audience hurdle but far from the soprano's own self. So Zimmerman has adjusted the "performer" Amina as well, giving her a coat, accessories, and a comic version of Dessay's own unflappable spunky energy. The tweaks let Dessay shine as Amina in her own persona -- a nice and valuable touch.

She, too, sings well. The voice remains what one heard in Lucia and Fille, and if it's not as shiny as it long-ago was, Dessay's ability to spin out Bellinian lines -- not least in concert with Florez, with whom she has a great rapport -- is undimmed. The real test comes at the end: the opera's most well known excerpt, Amina's final sleepwalking aria, "Ah! non credea". And here the magic one remembered from the Volpe Gala returned in full, with Zimmerman darkening the lights on all the production-business mundanities, leaving only a tiny lit model of the rehearsal space at stage rear and Dessay spotlit on an extension over the pit to mesmerize the audience.

*     *     *

And if things had so ended! But La Sonnambula rightly closes not with the soprano's heartbreaking lament but her cabaletta of ecstatic joy ("Ah! non giunge") when her believed-impossible wish is fulfilled. And Zimmerman, who has done so well putting herself in the background and Dessay out front just before, now squashes the moment -- the close and fulfillment of the entire opera -- by putting on a derisively elaborate dance number with derisively literal Swiss country costumes, with Dessay at the head, busier dancing than singing. Grotesque.

The cabaletta form is not just outmoded nonsense from the bad old days of pre-Wagnerian opera. It's an ideal vehicle for a sort of expression not much -- if at all -- attempted in new opera these days, much to our loss: joy, order, the thrill of onrushing energy neither sinister nor ridiculous. In this Bellini opera, Amina's ecstasy frees and neutralizes the darkness of her suffering -- on her and on the audience -- making for an indispensable and, when properly done, utterly captivating close.

It is bad enough that composers continue to fail us by not reviving some version of this form. For a director to draw some ironic quotation marks around arguably its greatest example -- for her to claim that this music is a part of the opera that we today can't get straight -- no, absolutely not. The booers were right.

(But perhaps a Peter Grimes-style edit could fix much.)

UPDATE (4:50PM): Mike Silverman's on-target review for AP notes that it was Dessay who nixed a more traditional setting in the first place (see also this tidbit). Perhaps she was also the one who wanted to flip off the audience at the end? Or perhaps squashing Dessay's big moment was Zimmerman's revenge... Or not. In any case, the finale was a ruinous misjudgment.


  1. The moral of the story: If you have nothing to say, then mock.

  2. "This conceit makes less sense the more one looks at it, but for all that it basically works."

    This is quite true. At the dress, I wasn't reading carefully, was fairly distracted by barnyard behavior in the audience, and only found it all basically digestible. Opening night I read my titles more and found it more confusing. It's a matter of disengaging a little and it works alright, if not perfectly.

  3. Maury is on target. I'd go a bit further. It's best not only to suspend disbelief, but also common sense. Then you watch a clever acting class improv while still listening to great music. What they have to go with eachother, I'll never know.


  4. "Like her Lucia, Zimmerman's basic method was to translate the scenic elements to those more vividly graspable by modern audiences"
    Why do you think the modern audience can't grasp the scenic elements that actually follow composer's and librettist wishes?

    In fact, it seems, it's the critics and some minority that likes EuroTrash like this Sonnambula production. The majority of modern audience actually prefers the productions set in time and place where the words in libretto and characters' sensibilities actually make sense.

  5. "Why do you think the modern audience can't grasp the scenic elements that actually follow composer's and librettist wishes?"

    I didn't say that. But given that no part of the audience had particular reason to know anything about pastoral early-Romantic Switzerland, a literal placement there isn't necessarily the "time and place where the words in libretto and characters' sensibilities actually make sense". Nuances specific to 19th c Swiss village life simply aren't going to tell.

  6. Are nuances specific to a early romantic Switzerland any different to nuances specific to any small European village in 19th century? Did Bellini actually write based on nuances specific to a Swiss village or did he write based on how he and his audience thought about life in such a village i.e. based on the prevailing views of such life and moral values of his time?

    We may not know about life specifically in a Swiss village, but there are many aspects of culture of 19th century that we know a whole lot about - from our knowledge of European history or from novels of romantic period. There is a wealth of literature written during that time. Manzoni's novel "I Promessi Sposi" comes to mind - a very typical historical novel of a romantic period with action that takes place in Northern Italy pretty close to Switzerland. The characters that bear some similarity to those of romantic operas. We can learn a lot about the life in small villages during that time from this novel, for example. Given that Bellini lived at approximately the same time as Manzoni, it stands to reason, that this type of an environment is exactly what he envisioned. You can look at novels of the romantic period from any country, and while some aspects may be different, the moral values and mentality would be very close.

    Specific things - the importance of virginity is an obvious one - makes a lot of sense in that time/place than in today's world. Amina is found with a strange man - OK, one could understand her fiance's reaction even in modern times, but most of the fellow actors would not really care.

    Maybe if Zimmerman moved the action to an Egyptian village or a convent school, it would've make more sense. But in these locations, there would be other differences specific to these places.

    Additionally, Sonnambula is not funny. It has a happy end but it is not meant to be funny. The music is not written to evoke laughter. Zimmerman's production on the other hand is funny in many places and it distracts greatly from the music.

  7. I don't mean that the ways and nuances of the past are entirely lost to us. But most of the opera audience in New York will not have read Manzoni -- and even among those who have, the knowledge gained may not have seeped into the unconscious and direct "knowing" on which a director would prefer to act...

    Obviously there will be tradeoffs, but something can be gained by subtly-handled re-setting. (And I think Zimmerman's Lucia gained a fair amount.)

    "Additionally, Sonnambula is not funny."

    Oh, I agree. While watching the production I was wondering whether Zimmerman (and/or Dessay?) was importing just enough snarky ha-ha to sell the disarmingly direct emotion elsewhere (and perhaps make it tell even more by contrast), or whether it was derisive mocking. Before the end, I'd thought it added up more to the former, but the final scene made their intentions more than clear.


Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.