Friday, March 20, 2009

The fallen idol

Easy shallow cynicism notwithstanding, Vincenzo Bellini and Felice Romani's La Sonnambula concerns a truth both open and deep in opera: the unavoidable danger and precariousness of prominence, gained voluntarily or not -- and even (especially! -- consider the fates of Carmen, Riccardo/Gustavo, and Desdemona, among others) when joined to love. Amina is beloved not only by Elvino but the town, and yet on her wedding eve a quick storm of deceptive happenstance allows an envious enemy to turn both on her, to near-disastrous effect. How quickly all abandon what they should long have known of her! But fortune and public opinion are fickle, and their long praise to start suggests a fury to come.

Composer and librettist set it masterfully. Elvino is -- as he beautifully sings -- personally jealous even of the breeze, but the crowd is no less agitated by the imminent prospect of yielding their mutually shared possession of the village mascot to Elvino's exclusive embrace. And so of course it is Amina's own joy at the next day's marriage (and perhaps excitement from the earlier festive congratulation) that drives her to the particular fateful sleep-walk that night. In tragic self-correction, acclaim and happiness create their own limit.

Of course the piece doesn't end that way: in a cute Enlightenment-flavored twist, a little scientific knowledge on the Count's part serves to clear things up as mere misunderstanding. And yet, lest we forget the truth of Amina's peril, she is not finally cleared and saved until she bodily enacts it at length, crossing blind and in agony over a high precarious bridge. How close a thing it is, and how lucky when one in such a position finishes whole and happy...

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Essentially all the good in the current Met production is in its handling of the personal and intimate aspects between the leads; the bad is in (not) providing social, more populated context. The production team (and I hesitate to single out director Mary Zimmerman because I wonder how much of a hand Natalie Dessay -- who apparently vetoed the original proposal of a literal staging -- and others had in these choices) deliberately trivializes the chorus of villagers at every turn: the opening love-fest with Amina is made pro forma, part of a rehearsal; their merciless blame and anger at the first act's close just Rossini-style nonsense; and of course all are shoved into maximally ridiculous Swiss peasant costumes and dances at the end. And of course the main conceit -- by making them a backstage chorus, co-operators and subordinates to Amina rather than spectators and actual people -- shows them as even more boxed-in, will-less and toothless. But the turns and reversals the villagers make through the piece aren't signs of insubstantiality. Quite the opposite: they embody the tempestuous relationship between all crowds and their favorites, between the two of which lies always much risk and uncertainty.

It's sort of amazing that the production got this so wrong, when even a shoddy Eurotrash vision (with, say, Amina as a young pop star and the villagers as her Amina-t-shirt-wearing fans) could have nailed the dynamic in a second. Because of course crowds are never merely toothless, contemptible, and silly, and to suggest so is -- well, not only to trivialize opera itself but to invite a mass demonstration of the reality. Which, at the production's opening, it got.

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Wednesday night's performance was the last before this Saturday's matinee moviecast, and was mostly unchanged from the show's first night. But there were some small edits. As mentioned elsewhere, Amina no longer writes "Aria" on the chalkboard before launching into her great final aria -- she writes "Elvino" instead. Less distinct -- but still, I think, present -- were some changes to the setting of Amina's great subsequent cabaletta (despite earlier reports of no change). The offensive final dance number remains, but the extent and busyness of Dessay's dancing in front has, if memory serves, been cut down a bit. Was this designed to soften the blow? Perhaps. The actual effect you may judge for yourself if you see it, but do realize that the first wave of reviews were upon seeing something a bit different.

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Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.