By Vincenzo Bellini
Director: Mary Zimmerman
Conductor: Evelino Pido
Amina: Natalie Dessay
Elvino: Juan Diego Flórez
Count Rodolfo: Michele Pertusi
Lisa: Jennifer Black
The New York Times said it was a shitty production with fabulous singers. The Washington Post, which rarely bothers to review operas outside the Washington area, said it was a really shitty production with fabulous singers. The Wall Street journal, on the other hand, said it was an interesting production with fabulous singers. So it was with a great deal of curiosity that I went to see the new Met production of Bellini's rarely performed semiseria opera La Sonnambula. I was all the more surprised by all the negative feedback that the director, Mary Zimmerman, staged a wildly inventive and hugely successful Pericles at the Shakespeare Theater in Washington a few years ago, and her Lucia de Lammermoor at the Met last year, even if not universally acclaimed, had the merit of making bold and still mostly relevant choices. But what the hell. I figured that even if the production was THAT bad, the two hot leads would more than make up for it and the trip wouldn't be a total waste.
The intrinsic issue with La Sonnambula is the light and silly story which brings nothing but serves as an excuse for "the Swan of Catania" to let his Bel Canto creative juices flow freely. (When two major elements of the plot are a Swiss village and sleepwalking, you know you're in trouble.) And indeed, the result is a constant stream of gracefully melodic music and emotionally charged arias, which are a total delight for the ears. Maestro Evelino Pido kept the music going, even if he did not sound overly inspired, but then why bother with a fully staged opera if there is nothing really engaging happening on the stage?
Placing the narrative in the present time as an opera company rehearsing La Sonnambula and living more or less the same story was a nice try, but did not turn out to be very convincing. While experimenting with the reality/fiction dichotomy can be a laudable, even exciting, endeavor, this did not work particularly well in that case, probably due to the lack of solid material to work from. Some of the ideas were fun (announcing the context on a blackboard, a grand finale in full Swiss regalia), but most of the time the concept caused confusion, made little sense or did not go anywhere. Oh boy.
La Sonnambula was especially composed for two of the most sensational singers at the time, Giuditta Pasta and Giovanni Battista Rubini, and yesterday afternoon it befell on two of today's most sensational singers to impersonate the central characters. An ardent supporter of dusting off traditional productions by putting a modern spin on them through theatricality, Soprano Natalie Dessay was obviously game. She may not have a big voice, but her coloratura was agile, detailed and assured, and her Amina had a rather lively personality, which was a big step up from her usual portrayal as a plain goody-two-shoes. Her equally terrific partner, tenor Juan Diego Flórez, was in brilliant vocal form and brought to Elvino enough passion and innocence, if not a particularly sharp mind, to make him vibrantly real. Their evident chemistry quickly turned their appealing duets, simply staged and free of external distractions, into show-stopping numbers.
They were generally well supported by the ever-present chorus, which often did not seem to know what to do with themselves, and when they did have directions to follow, those were quite perplexing. Michele Pertusi was an appropriately lecherous count turned savior of the day and Jennifer Black a delighfully sassy Lisa. But all the assembled talent could not work any miracle, even if they obviously did their best to pull it off.
So were the opening night's boos justified? Yesterday's much more tolerant audience (maybe due to lowered expectations?) gave it a warm ovation, which rightfully went up several notches with Natalie Dessay and Juan Diego Flórez took their bows. Without them, this would have been nothing. With them, it remains not much with fabulous singers. Not bad, especially since opera-going is for me first and foremost a musical experience, but not quite good enough.