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.