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Posts Tagged ‘Metropolitan Opera House’

Maybe inspiration did not last long, but Rheingold is by far Robert Lepage’s best effort in his staging of Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen. Here we find the best use of the “machine” and, maybe because there is so much going in the plot, singers have more to do and look less left alone (as in the remaining installments). Seen live, the effects are even more impressive than in the movie theatre.

The fact that Rheingold’s music is very “busy” may explain why Fabio Luisi is more comfortable here than elsewhere. There are lots of “micro goals” for him to concentrate on while most scenes have a clear rhythmic lead to follow. The orchestra was in very good shape and, except for the fact that some scenes lost steam and energy has to be built from scratch. Erda scene, for instance, was low valley to build up from and the closing scene resulted less climactic than it should. All in all, a good performance, strongly cast.

Replacing an indisposed Stephanie Blythe after having appeared as Mère Marie in Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmelites, Elizabeth Bishop proved to be a first-rate Fricka, actually more varied, especially in what regards acting, than Blythe herself.  Wendy Bryn Harmer is a full-toned Freia and Meredith Arwady is a forceful but not fully idiomatic Erda. As he did in Munich, Stefan Margita was clearly the audience’s favorite as Loge. He actually was in better voice here than at the Bavarian State Opera, his singing smoother and even more fluent. He also made far more of the staging than Richard Croft on the telecast. Robert Brubaker was probably the loudest Rheingold Mime I have ever heard. Considering that he has sung the Emperor in Frau ohn Schatten (in the Deutsche Oper Berlin, for instance), this is a curious piece of casting. Richard Paul Fink’s Alberich finds the role of Alberich a bit low and heavy for his voice, but he is a good actor and has good diction. Greer Grimsley has never been a noble-toned Wotan, but a very powerful one with exciting high notes. Although Franz-Josef Selig is still a commendable Fasolt, it is sad to see how his beautiful voice has been deteriorating. In his brief contributions, Hans-Peter König (Fasolt) proves to be again a great asset in the Met’s Ring. One cannot forget Dwayne Croft’s firm-toned Donner.

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Götterdämmerung is the most Italian among the Ring operas – we have a love duet, a revenge trio, a (double) wedding scene, a chorus and a mad scene (sort of). Is that the reason why Fabio Luisi was more at ease here than in Siegfried? To start with, either my ears have been unblocked or there were some large-scale orchestral sound to speak of this time. Strings still leave something to be desired, but I wonder if this is not a result of the conductor’s myopic approach: there are many interesting details in tonal coloring and highlighting of generally obscure motivic references, but the parts too often do not add up to a coherent result. There are micro-objectives – highlighting woodwind here, showing a propulsive rhythm there, helping singers somewhere else but if you try to see the big picture, it will probably be quite blurred.

For instance, this evening, the first scene in the prologue was about color and textual clarity at a funereal tempo, but the ensuing duet most commendably had a whiff of Il Trovatore in its athletic grace. Siegfried’s Rheinfahrt was athletic too, but in a rather clumsy way. The Gibichungenhalle scene had a refreshing conversational pace, but you could hear the space between every syllable during Waltraute’s Narration.

There was something Italian too about the way the orchestra tackled the accompanying figures in act II – bright, articulate sounds from the violins and clean, theatrical attacks, but the energy level was variable and tension had rather a peaks-and-valley than a upwards curve graphic. Act III opened to a rather unatmospheric scene with the Rhinemaids before it settled to a sensitive death scene for Siegfried, followed by a rushed account of the Trauermarsch.

Katarina Dalayman is a warm-toned, elegant Brünnhilde. Some high notes are tense and shorter than in the score, most of them however quite exciting in their sheer volume. She is a subtle performer who offers a dignified, womanly approach to the role. Jay Hunter Morris is predictably more comfortable here. Technique is still irregular and he has too many unfocused, undersupported and pushed moments, but he does have stamina. Sometimes, when all elements are well-coordinated, he produces some exciting high notes.

The low voices shined this evening – Hans-Peter König is a very powerful Hagen, Eric Owens again a dark-toned, frighteningly vehement Alberich and Iain Paterson is a noble-toned Gunther.

Karen Cargill is a capable Waltraute with a strong low register and beautiful mezza voce, but her high notes are not very forceful and she can be a bit fussy. Wendy Bryn Harmer is a reliable Gutrune and the Norns were very well cast (especially Elizabeth DeShong and Heidi Melton).

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Michael Mayer’s “rat pack” new production of Verdi’s Rigoletto for the Met could be seen on the telecast, but it won’t be very difficult to summarize it for those (like me) who did not go to a movie theatre: the action is set in the 1960′s in Las Vegas. The rest is pretty conventional. I cannot say that the updating has brought any special insight into any character or the plot itself. I don’t mean that the idea is not good a priori – those were days when casino big shots acted as if they were beyond the grip of law and a story more or less like that could have actually happened. But you have to add at least some psychology into the proceedings, because this is how people try to understand situations since good old Siegmund Freud spoke of id, ego and superego. When I was leaving the theatre, I overheard someone saying “What was that guy shouting ‘the curse!!!’ in the end? That was ludicrous!”. Well, not for Rigoletto – but there is a serious point here – what kind of person in 1960 would shout “The curse!” over his dead daughter’s body? And if there is an opera with plenty of Freudian elements, this is definitely Rigoletto – there is a father/daughter situation to start with. This is an opera in which the soprano has a nameless father and sings her big aria about how she loves her sweetheart’s NAME as soon as he invents one for himself (actually, he has no name either in this story).

There is a problem about the staging itself too. Many productions of Rigoletto turn around the opening scene, when the audience is supposed to see something spectacular. The problem is that the action develops in other directions after that – we have dark streets, the garden of a modest house, an antechamber in a palace and a tavern. But all this generally has to be adapted to cope with the opening scene. So you end up with an impressive set for a largely atmospheric scene, while the plot has to evolve in make-do sceneries. Here for instance. The curtains open for a complex, beautiful casino hall, but later you have to believe that: a) Rigoletto decides to hide her daughter in the very place where he wants her NOT to be seen (i.e., the casino); b) Rigoletto negotiates Sparafucile’s services in front of a barman; c) Gilda trills in the end of Caro Nome 20 cm away from a bunch of guys with masks who are ready to kidnap her; d) Rigoletto and Gilda are supposed to be alone for her to tell that she was deflowered (let’s use this word) by the Duke shortly before that, but here everybody just turn their backs to her and now she feels comfortable to explain all this to her father; e) the Duke almost bumps into Gilda and Rigoletto when he enters Sparafucile’s house; f) there is a huge storm outside, but Maddalena just goes out in her baby-doll and dressing gown to help hiding Gilda’s body and comes back free from the action of the elements. I may sound picky here, but again: those are basic elements of a staging.  You cannot place a wall on stage and expect the audience to pretend that sometimes it is not really a wall.

The musical aspect of the evening showed far more care. Marco Armiliato knows Verdian style and the importance of respecting propulsive rhythms, of orchestral effects and of a brighter, more flexible orchestral sound. He cared for his singers, helping them at key moments, but did not allow them to impair rhythmic coherence for narcissistic vocal displays.

Lisette Oropesa’s soprano is on the light side for Gilda. In act I, her gleaming high notes, seamless legato and sensitivity helped her to portray beauty, youth and loveliness most adeptly. In Caro nome, she displayed impressive technical abandon and musicianship. In the remaining acts, she did retain these qualities, but did not find enough leeway in Tutte le feste, for instance.

Vittorio Grigolo is a convincing, Italianate Duke, but his phrasing may be emphatic and his high notes a bit tense. George Gagnidze’s grainy baritone lacks punch in his high notes and he himself is a bit generic about interpretation. Enrico Giuseppe Iori’s bass is dark and spacious enough for Sparafucile,but Nancy Fabiola Herrera had some problem with following the beat in the quartet. Finally, I have always understood that the choristers should sing the “wind effect” in act III bocca chiusa. It did not sound like that this evening.

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Reading what I wrote about the telecast of Wagner’s Siegfried from the Met, I cannot help wondering how flattering these microphones can be. Even if it is not fair to compare two different performances, the forces involved are more or less the same and the impression could not be more different.

First of all, after having seen the telecast, I wrote that Fabio Luisi had shown his Wagnerian credentials and have mentioned even a sense of “rhythmic alertness”. The same cannot be said this evening, I am afraid. To start with, the house orchestra’s string section sounded so recessed and/or colorless that the only positive side one could mention is that you could indeed hear the beautiful playing from woodwind throughout. The pace was generally slow and, in the context of thin and modest orchestral sound (the introduction to act III could be described as downright clumsy), one could feel how slow it could be. In the defence of Maestro Luisi, he was extremely considerate with his singers – his leading tenor lacks power and had some false entries (Wotan was sometimes “creative”, especially with the text). The moment when the conductor stopped  being nice to his cast, things actually became more effective (we are talking about act III…) – the final scene was actually quite exciting with some instances of beautiful articulation from the violins.

In the telecast. Jay Hunter Morris sounded like a light, slightly metallic yet plausible Siegfried. This evening, I would not use these words. The sound was often unfocused, sometimes raw and often lacking slancio. His German is accented and sometimes his personality is too likable for boorish Siegfried. There are moments, especially in act III, when one can see his heroic potential in some firm and full high notes, but I would say that jugendlich dramatisch roles sound more reasonable for his voice, provided he tries a more elegant approach to phrasing.

Actually, one tends to be harder on the Siegfried when the Mime displays such firmness, power and volume as Gerhard Siegel has this evening. I would add that, when he stays away from Spieltenorish placement (let’s call it like this), one perfectly believes that this German tenor has sung roles such as Florestan and Tannhäuser (and maybe should sing them more often). He is also a very imaginative and charismatic actor, stealing the show this evening.

The Siegfried’s Brünnhilde will never be Katarina Dalayman’s best friend – and she had to resort to the usual adaptations (shortening note values and disregarding dynamic markings when things get high – and they tend to STAY high in this part) to make it happen. That said, she was in very good voice this evening. Although her acuti were unvariedly forte and often tense, she sang warmly and sensitively most of the time. Moreover, it is always a pleasure to hear such a big velvety soprano voice in the theatre.

I’ve heard Mark Delavan sing richer high notes as Wotan in Berlin, but this evening he showed deeper understanding of his role, singing spiritedly and with flair. Also, his voice is noble and ample as required. He seems to need some extra rehearsals in this productions, one could notice. The contrast to Eric Owens’s Alberich was quite telling. If there is something in the telecast that is truly consistent to reality is the American bass-baritone’s performance. This is truly a Wagnerian voice of outstanding quality – large, forceful, rich, dark and quite flexible. Among the non-native speakers this evening, his was by far the best German, not only in terms of pronunciation but also in what regards declamation. He has an intense stage presence but, differently from Rhinegold, the director gave him here nothing to work from.

As a friend said this evening, Hans-Peter König is one of the rare Fafners these days whose voice sound large even when it is NOT offstage. Meredith Arwading has impressive deep contralto notes while coping with the mezzo area of the Siegfried Erda, but her diction is imprecise – not enough to disguise a strong accent. As for Lisette Oropesa’s Waldvogel, this is a bit tricky, especially when you sing it offstage (these days, directors tend to put the soprano ON stage), but this evening the impression was especially pale.

As for the production, there is very little to add to what I have previously written. One often reads about how Robert Lepage’s production does not go beyond the “machine” and how there is no Personenregie. Well, I would say that even in what regards the machine, there is still some space for improvement. The dragon in act II is almost funny and the  sets in the closing scene is far less impressive than the way they looked in the end of Die Walküre, for instance.

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Thanks to James Levine’s invaluable advocacy, the Metropolitan Opera House has probably the world record in of performances of La Clemenza di Tito, the culmination of the opera seria genre, Mozart’s black pearl where tradition is reviewed and new perspective are hinted at. This is reason enough to find interest in every revival of this work in the Lincoln Center’s opera house, where casts of indisputable glamor have been assembled for 30 years. “Revival” is no random word here – since the 1984 house première, Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s production has been on duty. I myself saw it in 2008 and wondered then if it would still be around in the near future. It has been a positive surprise to found it interestingly revamped five years later.

Spielleiter Peter McClintock deserves credit for reading the libretto anew and bring to the fore so many interesting aspects in the text that made characters far more three-dimensional than in the past. Even for someone who knows this almost by heart, I could find food for thought here. Two examples:

a) I have always thought that Non più di fiori is some sort of twisted mad scene. Normally, a character would fantasize in such a moment about a happy ending that is not going to happen;  Vitellia is, however, no victim – so she fantasizes about the tragic ending that is not going to happen, the final section of her rondo some kind of acute episode of infantilization, in which she lulls herself into being passive after being dangerously active. Here, Vitellia is a spoiled brat from moment one and her childish narcissism makes the volte-face a logical conclusion – as she said, she made it all for love (for Tito), the revenge plot and also its final confession. A brilliant piece of casting made it easy to see all that.

b) Seductive as Vitellia might be, it had never struck me before today that nobody would be talked into a plot like that if he had not fantasized about it himself before – Vitellia being the liberating externalization of his suppressed desire of dragging Tito’s moral excellence to the mud. Here Tito appears to be carefree and content in the company of Sesto and Annio, who seem to be ill-at-ease near the Emperor, rather indulging him than enjoying being there. When Tito say things like “By marrying your sister, I’ll shorten the infinite gap set by the gods between you and me”, you could almost hear the “what a jerk…” in Sesto’s thoughts. The surprise here is that, when these two friends finally can express their feelings without pretty words, this is the moment when they discover how important they are to each other, an especially sad discover for Tito, whose main longing had always been to find someone to whom he could talk “at eye level”. Here casting was not very helpful to show all this, but the director’s hand could be felt at least.

By brilliant casting for Vitellia I meant Barbara Frittoli. Her voice has seen more exuberant days, especially when things get high or fast, and she has to cheat in some perilous moments, but the tonal quality is inimitably warm and full, she handles the low tessitura famously and everything has some sort of glamor. What makes her so special, though, is her ability to make Vitellia some sort of classical Scarlett O’Hara (or Rossella O’[H]ara, as she is called in Italy). The contrast to Elina Garanca’s Sesto is telling – the Latvian mezzo sings with immaculate poise, technique and sense of style and is often sensitive too (a beautiful Deh per questo), but doesn’t really inhabit the text – the important accompagnato Oh dei, che smania è questa being the less effective moment of her performance. In his first aria, Giuseppe Filianoti seemed to promise a bumpy evening, but he would eventually settle for something less awkward. His is an interesting voice for the role, but having to sing Mozartian lines takes him to the limits of his technique – the results being more accomplished than elegant, musically illuminating or just pleasant to the ears. If you want a forceful, bright sound, Gregory Kunde in the broadcast from Aix (2011) offered something far more polished. But there is a very positive side to Filianoti’s performance – his crystal-clear diction, his intent of making sense of his recitatives and some emotional urgency in his scenes with Sesto.

I have seen Kate Lindsey only once in a small role, but her Annio made me feel like hearing more. Although the voice itself lacks some personality, she makes the most of it in true Mozartian phrasing – and she is a good actress too. Lucy Crowe, a creamy-toned Servilia, lacked nuance in the exquisite act I duettino, but deserves the highest praise for her haunting performance of S’altro che lagrime, probably the most moving I have ever heard since Colin Davis’s recording with Lucia Popp (my six or seven readers will probably understand that this comparison is the top-level compliment in this blog).

Harry Bickett was the conductor I happened to see in 2008. Then I wrote that “expression and grandeur were achieved at the expense of clarity”. Not in this broadcast – the Met orchestra’s fullt-toned flexibility that evening is something to marvel. The conductor showed also deepened understand of this score’s profile, creating the atmosphere to each scene with precise accents and sense of threatre. Although the house chorus cannot compete with the level of accuracy of a Monteverdi Choir, their hushed Ah, grazie si rendano was a beautiful moment at any rate.

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I know, everybody has already said everything to be said about the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Ring and I won’t probably write anything new, but having written about the two previous telecasts (and reporting “live” from the Met in the opening night of Die Walküre), I feel compelled to say something about the two last installments in the cycle. First of all, although I had found James Levine’s conducting in Rheingold somehow nobler (if a bit ponderous) than in his previous DVDs and had never been an admirer of Fabio Luisi, this Italian conductor had really proved his Wagnerian credentials in these two operas, especially in Götterdämmerung. Even if you have probably heard more polished orchestral sound and a more purposeful baton in some of the Ring’s almost infamously slacker scenes, Maestro Luisi never denied this score fuel when things had to catch fire: the impulse that propelled the scene often often started in the orchestral pit, not only in the sense of rhythmic alertness (most often than not the case here), but more importantly in the sense that the orchestral phrasing and tonal coloring established the dramatic content of each scene. Even if the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra might yield to the Berlin Philharmonic or the Vienna Philharmonic in warmth or in clarity, its A-team proved itself capable of a wide-ranging tonal palette, including some theatrically exciting raw sonorities that its famous European counterparts are not always willing to try. Some scenes gained a whole new excitement in its “graphic” sound effects as provided by these musicians – the string section in particularly exuberant shape, producing some exciting passagework in almost pre-war transparency.

In what regards the cast, the Met’s microphones are famous for their generosity, and I am willing to hear what my 7 or 8 readers (now that this not a blog from Berlin anymore, I guess I have to downscale its popularity) have to say about these singers. I have to confess I am surprised by Deborah Voigt’s achievements. I still find her dull in her Martha-Stewart-like propriety, complete absence of tonal/dynamic variety, artificial German and lack of emotional involvement (it seems to be all about “see how I can do this very tough piece of singing!”) BUT – at least in these telecasts – she sings it truly healthily and reliably. As she herself says, Siegfried is a bit high for her (and everybody else) and, by the end of it, she is a bit economical about the length of her acuti, but it all sounds like music, and that’s rare. In Götterdämmerung, her endless supply of round, rich, big top notes seemed a bit detached from Brünnhilde’s predicaments, but those were all right truly round, rich, big top notes.

Without being in the theatre and knowing how effective Jay Hunter Morris’s projection is, I’ll compare him to his competition on video and say he has many assets in comparison. First of all, he looks like Siegfried. Second, his acting talents are far from negligible – even if his stage persona is so likeable and congenial that one finds Siegfried incapable of doing something nasty or really violent (as he is supposed to be). Third, it is admirable the way he is determined to SING the role. As much as in his acting, this Siegfried is not about sharp angles – and this is particularly useful for his duets with Brünnhilde, in which there is a welcome drop of matinée tenor in his ardor and intent of liquidity. Naturally, there are moments in which he shows some fatigue (off-focus and squeezed high notes particularly), but even then, the results are smoother than with most. He still has to make the German text more natural – and less American (especially the “l” consonant).

As before, Bryn Terfel is a Wotan for repeated listening. There are many layers of meaning in his phrasing and, if his is not the most tremendous voice in the role, it is one entirely used for the singers’ expressive intents. And he also happens to be in good shape here. Eric Owens is a force of nature as Alberich and Hans-Peter König – differently from his not particularly menacing Hunding – proved to find an effective less-is-more formula for his richly sung Hagen. Gerhard Siegel’s Mime has some echt Heldentenor ring to his voice when he lets it and he is less mannered than most. Iain Patterson has the right voice and personality for Gunter, and I wished Wendy Bryn Harmer could bring more chiaroscuro to her all-purpose performance, for the voice is very appealing. As always, Waltraud Meier finds new things in everything she does. As for Patricia Bardon, I am afraid this is not really her repertoire, good as she is.

As for her Robert Lepage’s production, I’ve noticed I have said the same things the three times I have written about this Ring. I’ll try to say something different this time. Therefore, I won’t develop the “no Personenregie”, “no concept”, “why the fuss about the machine?”-comments. I’ll assume that the Met did want an easy production that would not shock new audiences away, the “novelty” of which would not interfere with the basic (in the sense of “primitive”) reporting of the immediate (in the sense of “superficial”) story-telling. In that sense, this Ring has fulfilled the commission’s requirements. My question is: why does it have to be so atmospheric? By “atmospheric”, I mean – yes, it does create the right atmosphere by virtue of very expensive machinery etc, but when it comes to the precise effects as described by the libretto, well, it is quite underwhelming: Fafner is a Chinese-fair-dragon, Erda comes on and off stage walking like everybody else and, if there is an anti-climax, then this is the immolation scene, which was short of embarrassing, I am afraid. And why does it have to be kitsch? Waters turning red whenever someone is murdered, those cereal-pack-figurine-like sculptures for the Gibichungen Halle – and the costumes from Monty Python and the Holy Grail and so forth. I mean – one can do better than this, even if one wants to make a new Otto Schenk production.

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R. Strauss never made anyone’s lives easier with his complex and often almost unsingable operas – and that’s what makes them so interesting! – and would not change that in his farewell to the world of opera. Capriccio’s conversational style is a challenge to singers, conductor, director but most frequently… to the audience. Not this evening, I am glad to say. Underrated conductor Andrew Davis knows and loves this score and never fails to show how beautiful and expressive it is. His judgment in what regards the balance between orchestra and soloists is ideal. To say the truth, under his bâton singers and orchestra were one organic unity that breathed together and complemented each other in one coherent musical statement. His tempi were often animated, and the cleanliness in the complex ensemble with the Italian singers deserves double praise therefore.

The Countess is probably Renée Fleming’s most interesting role. Her mannered delivery of the text fits the role’s “phraseology” and ultimately makes it more varied and interesting than it normally is. Her creamy soprano, of course, is taylor-made for the part. I can imagine that she is able to deliver a smoother closing scene than this evening’s, which was nonetheless quite satisfactory. If I have one criticism is that, although Fleming brings the necessary glamour to the role, this is not exactly the aristocratic glamour one would expect to find in it. Lets say it was rather Lana Turner than Deborah Kerr.

Next to her, only Peter Rose’s La Roche managed to create a convincing performance. The English bass’s large and dark voice retains its quality even in fast declamation passages. It is only a pity that his great solo caught him a bit off steam. The remaining singers did not spoil the show and proved to have great spirit of ensemble. I realize that I am maybe mean with Sarah Connoly, who delivered a fruity, charming Clairon, but memories of Tatiana Troyanos makes one demanding. Joseph Kaiser’s grainy tenor does not suggest a passionate or persuasive Flamand, but he sang sensitively. Russel Braun’s Oliver also wants a more appealing tonal quality. Morten Frank Larsen is even less vocally seductive as the Count, but he is vivid enough an actor. Both Olga Makarina and especially Barry Banks almost stole the show with their funny and well sung Italian singers.

John Cox’s 1998 production updates the action to pre-WWII XXth century, but the XVIIIth century château has only a telephone to show that. Regietheater-lovers would probably prefer to see it staged in a bunker, but I found that this choice allowed the director to concentrate on the acting – and I would say it proved to be a wise choice, for the whole cast responded adeptly for his detailed and subtly funny guidance

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Wozzeck is no Rosenkavalier, but the lush, late Romantic sonorities James Levine brings to Alban Berg’s masterpiece suggested a wide emotional spectrum that ultimately failed to deliver any particular thrill. The rich strings, the smooth brass sonorities, they seemed to serve no particular objective other than making a “difficult” work user-friendlier. However, the Karajanesque sonic narcissism turned out as somewhat monotonous, especially because of fulness of sound had a big advantage on clarity.

Although Waltraud Meier’s unglamourously sexy tonal quality works well for Marie. She had to negotiate her high notes very carefully and what she could do was often thin and sometimes below true pitch. Alan Held deserves praise for for his hard work and involvment but there is a difference between a carefully rehearsed and a powerful, legitimate interpretation. Among the difficult minor roles, Gerhard Siegel proved to be the more reliable. His tenor is firm and forceful and his diction is very clear. Stuart Skelton seemed to find the role of the Drum Major too high and Walter Fink sounded basically unfocused.

Mark Lamos’s 1997 production for the Met does not seem to have any purpose other than providing images in elegant colors as background to the music. I could not find any insight from the director in this rather sterile staging.

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I had so many things to say about Mary Zimmerman’s production of Bellini’s La Sonnambula before ever seeing it that I have finally decided that I ought to see it – at the movie theatre. 

My first problem with the Met’s new Sonnambula was its selling feature. In the words of Peter Gelb himself, Bellini’s comédie larmoyante would have a helplessly flimsy libretto and ergo it needs help from the likes of Mary Zimmerman and Natalie Dessay. The idea that such a well-loved masterpiece should be fixed by a clueless stage director and a soi-disante intellectualized diva is simply disgusting and put me immediately in a negative disposition.

To start with, there is nothing wrong or stupid or undramatic about La Sonnambula’s plot – it is an insightful study on the theme of innocence, more precisely its “ideal type”, the ingénue. In a backwards Swiss village, the beautiful Amina, an orphan raised by an adoptive mother, is engaged to the local prospective good catch, Elvino. Everybody is radiant about the upcoming wedding but Lisa, the village’s resident bitch and Elvino’s former girlfriend. While Lisa has a sexy thing about her, Amina is the sort of angelic beauty with modest manners. Apart from Lisa, everybody is exultant about what promises to be a marriage made in Heaven. However, there is always a little hell hidden in every heaven – and the arrival of Count Rodolfo adds a little spice to the proceedings.

As soon as the gentleman sees Amina, he is immeditaly smitten by the girl’s artless charm. Surprisingly, the girl unconsciously responds the Count’s gallantry, what triggers a jealous fit for Elvino, who proves to be increasingly charmless, whiny and ultimately unseductive. But the girl is an angel, the boy is a decent fellow and they make peace.

Because of a ghost that haunts the place, the villagers return to their homes early in the evening – and the Count takes a room in Lisa’s hostel (ah, Lisa has a job too). Lisa tries to seduce the Count, but they hear some noise nearby and she goes away before someone sees her alone with a man in his room. The noise proves to be Amina in her nightgown. She is a sleepwalker and by sheer accident, of all rooms in the village, she shows up at the Count’s room. Although the girl is innocent, the events that took place that afternoon spurred thoughts in her mind about her wedding night and she is presently fantasising about that.  She embraces the Count while calling Elvino - and the way she calls him reveal hidden sparks. The whole event is too much for the Count’s steadfastness and he decides to leave the room before things get out of control. But Lisa sees everything and , in the next morning, invents a pretext to have the whole village witness that Amina had slept in the Count’s room. The engagement is broken to the bewildered girl’s dismay.

Obviously, on a conscious level, Amina is innocent – but the sleepwalking theme is used to put things on an unconscious level. The encounter with the Count revealed the kind of arousal she obviously never had with Elvino and her repressed instincts led her to the events that caused her rejection by her fiancé.

After an attempted rebound wedding with Lisa, Elvino witnesses one of Amina’s episodes of somnambulism during which the girl almost dies while lamenting the loss of Elvino’s love. Regretful, he  wakes her up and, in jubilant coloratura, she says she is in a “heaven of love”. Curiously, the librettist leaves to our imagination what she is going to do with the fact that Elvino won’t make her toes curl.

If we remember all that was written before the days of psychology, I would say that the plot is even quite clever. But Zimmerman and Dessay’s Marie-Claire-reading-worldweariness doesn’t do coyness – and they decided that the audience wants more. But the problem remains that Dessay is still a soprano leggiero and Zimmerman won’t ever be invited to direct Die Frau ohne Schatten. But that’s no problem if you transform the Swiss village into a rehearsal room, if Amina becomes an opera diva, Elvino her co-star and boyfriend, Lisa a stage director, the Count is probably an impresario, Lisa´s inn… Lisa’s inn is still the rehearsal room… and the rich impresario has to sleep in a hospital bed in the rehearsal room… and Amina also has to sleep there… actually she sleepwalks through the Met’s audience… and then she gets to the rehearsal room… and the choristers are so horrified to discover that the diva probably had, omygod, sex with the impresario that they tear all their sheet music away… As you see, this actually makes more sense than La Sonnambula’s libretto as written…

In any case, if I hadn’t read anything before I got to the movie theatre, I would say that there is still something to cherish. The sets are beautiful, the chorus members are extremely well directed with clearly defined personalities and, if Zimmerman really tried to solve the (many) loose ends in her concept, the whole idea of a show in the show could have worked. Maybe if Amina were not an opera diva, but the star of a high-school musical, maybe if Rodolfo were a handsome school teacher and if their scene happened in the house of Lisa, a rival teenager – maybe it could have worked in a Splendor-in-the-grass way. But if you take the naïveté out of the equation, the whole thing looks really silly.

Curiously, in spite of the present unfocused and colourless quality of Natalie Dessay’s high register, her Amina seemed to me far more convincing than her Lucia. She made more of the words and could conjure a girly and sweet tone when necessary. An ideal Amina would need more artlessness, more directness – this is a role that must go straight to the heart and eschew any braininess. Dessay falls more than once in the trap of coquettishness – and that is a no go. As for Juan Diego Flórez, although the tone is not attractive and does not ideally float in the tender moments of his duets with Amina, his phrasing is clean and accurate, his acuti are firm and exciting and he is truly engaged. I would say that both pale before Michele Pertusi’s elegant Rodolfo. This was one of the best performances I have seen from this singer. It is a pity, though, that Jennifer Black’s soprano is foreign to bel canto. Evelino Pidò’s expert conducting should be mentioned. At least as caught by the microphone, he could produce rich sounds without drowning his singers and always found tempi that made it comfortable for them to deal with their difficult florid lines.

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I am something of a veteran in what regards Mary Zimmerman’s production of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor for the Met. I have seen every cast featured in the opera with the exception of the most controversial one (unlucky me) – that of this year’s revival with Anna Netrebko and her three tenors. Fortunately, there are things that only the Metropolitan Opera Live in HD series can do for you, even if my experience was far from live.

First of all, it is quite peculiar to watch the opera at a movie theatre. It is darker than in the opera house, the sound is louder (so you don’t feel like killing your neighbour when he or she starts to fidget with his or her personal belongings or coughing his or her lungs out), you have that funny camera angle as if you were hanging from the edge of the stage (I am not sure I really like that), everybody seems to have a HUGE voice and the orchestra is so powerful as if the Berliner Philharmoniker were playing in your bathroom. There is also the intermission, with Natalie Dessay apparently on drugs manically asking around questions that she herself was ready to answer.

Actually the funniest event of the evening is her appearance at Netrebko’s dressing room’s door. Dessay asks about her approach to the role. Netrebko says something like “it is very difficult and you have to know where the traps are in order not to fall in any of them”. And then Dessay insists – but you mean vocal, interpretative or scenic traps? And Netrebko goes on with “yes – all that”. But Dessay wants to know the secrets of Netrebko’s mind and suggests – you mean you have an intuitive approach? And Netrebko says “yes – something like that”. But Dessay is indefatigable and says “You mean you can be open to the possibilities because you have already carefully worked out them in rehearsal?”. Netrebko looks at the camera, thinks “Uvy…” to herself and says “Yes – I practice a lot”. That is the moment when Netrebko should have said “Look, Natalie – I am not French. I don’t do philosophy – I just sing”. Dessay winks at the camera with “well, folks, I’ve tried” and leaves Netrebko to her preparation for the Mad Scene. The curious thing is that Netrebko goes to her dressing room with the microphone on her hand. A guy rushes in after her. I guess his mission was to turn the microphone off before it broadcast to the world the word “Bitch…”.

Back to the performance. Although I was not live at the theatre but using my experience with Netrebko’s Elvira from the Met’s Puritani, I feel comfortable to say I would have probably enjoyed her Lucia more than I did either Dessay’s or Damrau’s. Although Dessay’s voice had seen healthier days, the role did not seem to pose her technical challenges and she projects efficiently in the auditorium. What bothered me, it was her detached, over-analyzed approach that, together with indifferent enunciation of the Italian text, gave me the impression that the whole Lucia thing was below her intellect. As for Damrau, she just should not sing that role in a gigantic theatre such as the Met, where a certain curdled quality in her tone brings about the opposite of loveliness. Although both these ladies deal with the coloratura demands far more efficiently than Netrebko – I still feel more comfortable with Netrebko’s richer, larger and more beautiful sound. I also believe that she understands that she is no soprano coloratura and deals with her fioriture in a more delicate, rather Mozartian way that could not be wiser considered the role and her possibilities. Until the Mad Scene, her performance seemed to me a valid alternative to Lucia if you want to hear a darker tone and a more lyric approach to this role. But the fact is that this fearsome scene finds her in disadvantage. She did not let herself overwhelm by the many difficulties, but she did not really transcend them. It was acceptable considering the beauty of her voice and her good taste. Although the close-up angles showed a very much self-possessed look, I somehow liked her more economical gestures in that scene, compared to Dessay and Damrau’s more semaphoric attitude, which seemed finally distracting to my taste. If I have to point out another good novelty, this would be the very light suggestion of repressed incestuous feelings between the siblings. I had never thought of something like that, but this could offer a modern-psychology explanation for a lot happening in this opera.

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