Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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We're Desperate, Get Used To It

March 22, 2009

Natalie Dessay (r) and JDF (l)
Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera 2009

So, on Saturday while in New York, I was in the audience for the much-reviled Mary Zimmerman production of Bellini’s La Sonnambula featured as part of the Metropolitan Opera’s HD broadcast series. I must say that I don’t get it. Not the production, I'm fine with that and found it clever and rather enjoyable. But I don't know why everybody got their panties in such a bunch over this one. As you may recall, the production team was met with vociferous boos on opening night, as widely reported across the Internets. Sure this production probably won’t make my top 10 list or anything, but it was hardly the slap in the face to the audience that some critics have made it out to be. And frankly as masochistic as the general Met audience is, I hardly think that would be much of a criticism anyway. (They'll happily sit through that dessicated Cav/Pag countless times for instance.) For those of you not up to speed, director Mary Zimmerman moved the action of the story from a quaint Swiss village, to a rehearsal studio where the cast is actually rehearsing a production of the opera itself with all of the primary relationships in the opera replicated among the "actors" in the production. Much of the standard critique is that the concept falls apart after awhile and it is unclear when the cast is "rehearsing" the opera and when they are not. Furthermore, many writers were taken aback by the close of Act I when the chorus, having found Amina in the count’s bed, begins tearing up their scripts and trashing the rehearsal studio. Later at the conclusion of the piece, when all is forgiven, the cast dons kitschy Swiss costumes and performs the conclusion of the work as a sort of self-referential parody.

This is what the fuss is about? So it isn’t reverent towards Bellini’s original. Who cares? Yes, it doesn’t always make sense. But when has that ever been a criterion for any opera much less an individual production. Traditional Met audiences have been weened on so many crappy ersatz "European" fantasies over the years that a mild tweak of a frankly flimsy opera comes along and you’d think somebody died. I actually enjoyed the whole thing a fair amount. Natalie Dessay is engaging as Amina, and I felt for her in a situation where she’s rejected by her lover and demonized by the townsfolk. (Perhaps, they were wrecking the studio over their anger at her and the fear that the break up between their two leading performers meant the end of the project and loss of their jobs.) There are more than a couple of wonderful moments. The first is when Dessay enters from the back of the auditorium performing Amina’s first sleepwalking aria from the aisles. For the Act II showpiece, she is thrust forward over the orchestra pit on a plank jutting from the stage. Maybe it wasn't logical or respectful, but it was pretty and engaging if you can let go and take the production on its own terms.

The singing was good all around, and Juan Diego Flórez continues to rock the house. If there was any major criticism of the evening in my mind, it rests with conductor Evelino Pidò whose glacialy slow pacing dragged everything down, making some of the action seem much more methodical than necessary. But I must commend Zimmerman, Dessay, and general director Peter Gelb for moving on despite the beating they’ve taken in the press and elsewhere over this. Mary Zimmerman’s La Sonnambula is exactly the kind of production the Metropolitan Opera needs. In fact it probably needs a dozen more like it. The idea may not be original and this production may ultimately not be ideal, but if America’s premiere house ever intends to get back on top of the artistic heap it long ago ceded to other shores, it’s going to have to keep taking some risks. Many of these are not going to work. But they’re playing catch up right now and thank goodness Mary Zimmerman’s got a pair to actually do something a little more interesting than say the "new" warmed-over David McVicar Il Trovatore or a dozen other ancient dinosaurs that roam those hollowed aisles. The world's best music and singing aren't going to do it all by themselves or they wouldn't be where they are to begin with. There are three more performances of La Sonnambula, and there are still a few tickets floating around for it.


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