Wednesday, March 25, 2009

"Sonnambula" in HD: Perchè non posso odiarti

Saturday morning I went to see one of the Met's Live in HD cinema transmissions for the first time. The opera was La Sonnambula--no surprise that it would be the one to get me out of bed early on a weekend, since you know how I adore Natalie Dessay and how much I loved Mary Zimmerman's The Arabian Nights. I had conflicted feelings, then, when I learned that this production got booed at its Met premiere. On one hand, I was excited I'd get to judge a controversial production for myself. Booing is so rare these days, and this Sonnambula didn't even have any outwardly scandalous trappings like nudity, debauchery or bloodshed! On the other hand, if I didn't like the production, I'd have to reevaluate my attitudes toward Dessay and Zimmerman. And while it's not a bad thing to learn that your favorite artists are only human and can make mistakes, it's never a fun lesson to learn, either.

And my verdict? Well, I don't see a point in seething with outrage over this production, but that's not to say that it works. There were some inspired moments, and the performers were committed and engaging; but there were also many dull, muddled, or over-done passages. I appreciate the risk that Zimmerman took, but it needed more rigorous thought behind it. Perhaps Dessay is partly to blame for this--according to The New Yorker, Zimmerman had been planning a much more conventional staging until Dessay challenged her to come up with something more creative. All the same, Zimmerman has been working with this concept for over a year, and it's still muddled, so... Too bad it had to be such a high-profile failure, but at Mary Zimmerman's level it's impossible to fail quietly.

La Sonnambula, composed by Bellini in 1831, tells the simple tale of young Amina, who, unbeknownst to everyone in her village, is a sleepwalker. The night before her wedding to a man named Elvino, she sleepwalks into the room of a visiting Count, and when she is discovered, her reputation is ruined. But by the end of Act II, all is set to rights again. Obviously this plot lacks a certain pizzazz, so Zimmerman's production added a postmodern layer on top of it. Rather than taking place in 19th-century Switzerland, it took place in a contemporary NYC rehearsal space where a company of singers, rehearsing Sonnambula, find their relationships mirroring those of the characters they play.

The concept worked best in the first scene, which is exactly where it's most needed. I think the worst thing about the Sonnambula libretto, even more than the thinness of the plot, is how long said plot takes to get going. (Which I realize is a very "Terrible food! And such small portions!" kind of complaint, but oh well.) For the first half hour, Sonnambula is one big lovefest: the villagers love Amina, Amina and Elvino love each other, the Count loves the beautiful countryside. Only when the Count flirts with Amina and Elvino gets jealous does the situation become infused with human drama.

But Zimmerman's concept, and the audience's curiosity about how she'd make it work, lent surprise and interest to these early scenes. She evokes the rehearsal environment with vivid specificity. I loved seeing this production in HD because of the amazingly detailed set--it looks exactly like a lived-in, slightly shabby rehearsal space, with chipped paint on the walls and used paper cups scattered carelessly on a table--but it is a stage set that must be struck after every performance! The characters also become more interesting. Dessay gets to sing Amina's first aria in the persona of an opera diva trying on costumes and shoes, which caters to her comedy skills and love of complex characters. And it makes Amina charming in a 21st-century way rather than a 19th-century one. Furthermore, in the first scene, the line between rehearsal and real life is always very clear. First, the opera company's Diva and Leading Man rehearse the scene of Amina and Elvino's betrothal; then the rehearsal pauses and the Leading Man proposes to the Diva in real life. It's logical and it works.

But after this scene, things get muddled. Who is the Count's counterpart in the modern-day story, and why does he need to bunk down on an old cot in the rehearsal room? And when Amina sleepwalks onto his cot and we're supposed to think that it is the Diva sleepwalking (i.e. it is not merely a rehearsal), why is she wearing an old-fashioned white nightgown such as no 21st-century woman would choose to wear? Why does the chorus sometimes behave like modern-day individuals, and sometimes like a traditional 19th-century opera chorus? (At the top of Act II, as Elvino sings an anguished aria, the chorus behind him performs lyrical gestures. It's a moving moment, as though the whole world is feeling Elvino's grief, but it doesn't mesh with how the chorus was set up to behave in Act I.) Indeed, for much of Act II, Zimmerman seems to be out of ideas. The contrast between rehearsal and real life disappears, and apart from the modern clothes and scenery, the production becomes very traditional.

The biggest problem, though, is the extreme disarray of the finales of both acts. Even though I just accused Zimmerman of lacking ideas, that means she sometimes lets well enough alone--giving Juan Diego Flórez and Natalie Dessay the spotlight for their big solos, rather than doing anything directorial to interfere with the singers. However, in the finales, there is too much going on, too many ideas, and it's distracting. In the Act I finale, the chorus gets so upset at the Diva and the Leading Man's breakup that they trash the rehearsal room, flinging papers and costumes about. In the middle of it all, Flórez and Dessay stand on a spinning bed, straining to be seen and heard above the din. The Act II finale puts everyone in "traditional" Sonnambula costumes (Swiss dirndls, funny little vests) for a big choral song-and-dance. But it's so busy and hectic that it does not grant the emotional release that the end of the opera demands. You can admire Dessay's technical skill in singing "Ah, non giunge" while hopping around and being hoisted into the air, but you can't feel Amina's joy.

It's the singers who made it possible for me to enjoy the broadcast, and who provide a justification for producing this opera. Juan Diego Flórez is indisputably a great talent, but he has a very particular kind of voice that is not suited to a huge variety of roles. So despite the flaws of La Sonnambula, it makes sense for him to perform it, because Elvino has some terrific stuff to sing, and the role covers an especially wide range of emotions. He performed his two Act II arias splendidly, including a blistering "Perche non posso odiarti," in which his character bitterly rejects Amina. (Listen to it here.)

Now, it's difficult for me to complain about Natalie Dessay, but I don't think the role of Amina is made-to-measure for her. If I had to name the one thing I love best about Natalie, it is her intensity, which comes across when she is interviewed and in her signature roles. But the role of Amina is the opposite of intense--the whole point of the opera is that she's a sweet, dreamy girl who's asleep during two of her big scenes! This is not to fault what Dessay actually did in this more toned-down mode, however. And after her lovely and delicate "Ah non credea mirarti" (she's so petite--where does she get the lung capacity for those long phrases?!) the camera zoomed in on her face and revealed a genuine tear-stain beneath one of her eyes.

More important, she and Flórez are really adorable together. Perhaps they're not quite as cute in Sonnambula as in La Fille du Régiment, and perhaps when they sing in harmony his voice is a size larger than hers. But they have real chemistry in their love duets, and sing with passion and commitment. It was fun to see them laughing and joking together, too, when Deborah Voight interviewed them following Act I.

I enjoyed the acting of Jennifer Black as Lisa, who secretly loves Elvino. Black's redheaded good looks showed up well in HD, and her facial expressions told you everything you needed to know about this frustrated young woman, who, although she is our heroine's rival, isn't a traditional villainness. (This production gave Lisa a nice moment of redemption when she saved the sleepwalking Amina from falling off a ledge.) I just don't think that Lisa's Act II aria suited Black's voice very well; she sounds like she'd do better in stuff that requires less coloratura.

Dessay has suggested that Sonnambula is a silly story, offending some opera-goers in the process. There's a reactionary element at work here, people who claim that modern audiences have become too cynical and nasty to accept Bellini's pastoral romance, and that audiences in the olden days knew "better." Well, perhaps I am a cynic, because whenever I hear people talking like this I suspect them of romanticizing the past--and in this case I have proof! I stumbled upon a New York Times review of Sonnambula from 1916 that states "Of course no listener of today finds either Amina or Elvino a figure of any interest whatever. La Sonnambula is one of the most faded operas of the Italian list, and the doings of all its personages...are of the most conventional operatic sort." So much for the good old days!

Anyway, it's not outrageous to say that Sonnambula lacks a really intriguing libretto; surely Dessay is not the only opera singer who thinks this. Furthermore, many of the singers in this production must realize that Zimmerman's staging is a muddled mixed bag. (Even Dessay, though partly responsible for Zimmerman's concept, sounds guardedly diplomatic when discussing it in The New Yorker: "At the beginning, I felt that the concept didn't carry all the way through--it was just an idea to wrap it in beautiful paper. But after three weeks of rehearsals I think we are going to make it work.") But watching her and Flórez and the others perform, you'd never guess that anyone dislikes this story and/or this production. At the end of Act I, when they're spinning around on that bed, yes, the staging is chaotic and illogical, but Dessay and Flórez sang their hearts out nonetheless, keeping intense eye contact, trusting in each other and in Bellini's music. And I do find that inspiring.

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