La Sonnambula Met Dessay Germany

The Met choristers, portraying the members of the opera company, look relaxed in their workaday clothes, designed by Mara Blumenfeld. When Ms. Dessay arrives for rehearsal, a little late, she descends the stairs in a creamy white coat, her ear to a cellphone, looking distracted but confident as the company’s prima donna. Mr. Flórez is a dashing Elvino in black pants and leather jacket, exuding energy and knowing charm.

The bright-voiced soprano Jennifer Black plays Lisa, who, as Bellini presents her, is an inn hostess frustrated in her enduring love for Elvino. Here she is the efficient director of the company. The mezzo-soprano Jane Bunnell sings with appealing warmth and makes a charmingly frumpy Teresa, Amina’s adoptive mother.

When the Italian bass Michele Pertusi, a sophisticated singer, made his entrance as Count Rodolfo, dressed impeccably in a cashmere coat, I wondered whether Ms. Zimmerman might have simply updated the story and left it at that. The added conceit encumbers the entire production. When Elvino proposes to Amina, is it real or just a rehearsal? That the choristers look on, slightly bored and slightly touched, gives no clue.

Ms. Dessay’s entrance during the first crucial sleepwalking scene is a theatrical coup. From a rear door of the Met auditorium, a bright light pointing the way, she walks down the aisle toward the stage, turning around midway to sing the opening recitative, looking and sounding spectral. Soon, she wanders up to the stage and the waiting count. Yet again the questions come: Is her sleepwalking just a rehearsal? If so, who is directing it?

When the villagers in Bellini’s opera discover Amina asleep in the count’s room, they are scandalized. But why would Amina’s colleagues be so shocked by a little backstage hanky-panky? What kind of urban opera company is this?

The ensemble scene that ends Act I is a meticulously staged and unmotivated muddle. The choristers, riled by the breakup of Amina and Elvino, go crazy and trash the rehearsal room, ripping up their scores, flinging costumes on the floor, knocking over music stands.

Clearly Ms. Zimmerman wants her audience to respond intuitively and not think too hard. But this does not excuse her from having to work out the details of the concept. Paradoxically, I have never been so caught up with the implausible specifics of the libretto. With the disconnect between the story and the staging, I kept thinking, “But that’s not what Amina means.”

Ms. Dessay was not too happy working with Ms. Zimmerman on the Met’s new production of Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” last season. But on Monday, when Ms. Zimmerman’s appearance during curtain calls was met with an outburst of lusty booing, Ms. Dessay tried to shush the audience and applauded her director vigorously.

I wish I could say that Ms. Dessay has been thoroughly emboldened by this production. There are wondrous qualities in her singing. Though not large, her voice has such bloom and is supported so securely that it fills the house easily and sends Bellini’s phrases soaring. Her feeling for nuance in the lines and the words is always sensitive.

Still, there is sometimes a tentative quality to her work, as during the opening cavatina, “Come per me sereno,” when Amina expresses girlish contentment in her love through radiant music suffused with sadness. As Ms. Dessay sings this aria, her Amina blithely endures a costume fitting, which makes her expression of romantic bliss come across as insincere.

I seem to be among a minority who find the timbre of Mr. Flórez’s voice a little tight. But he certainly sings Elvino with abundant energy, stylish phrasing and ringing top notes. He won a tumultuous ovation from the audience. Evelino Pidò conducted a nicely subdued account of the score, though in places his halting execution seemed overly deferential to the pacing onstage.

Hanging over the production is the perception that no one seems to believe in this opera. Before the mad scene, Ms. Dessay’s somnambulant character writes the word “aria” on the blackboard, which of course induces a laugh and practically announces, “Do not take this scene seriously.”

The jubilant final ensemble is staged as a dress rehearsal, with everyone in cutesy Swiss villager costumes. Of course they look ridiculous. But with this gesture Ms. Zimmerman sets up a straw man, as if the only choices were either to place “La Sonnambula” in Heidi’s hokey Alpine village or to turn it into a Pirandello play.

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I love opera, and am very fond of Bellini's music. La Sonnambula's story may be slight but the music is absolutely beautiful. This production may not be to everyone's tastes, however I personally found it a riot and imaginatively staged.

The production updates the opera to a modern setting-something that has been done with mixed results, this production is an example of this working, while the 2005 production of Don Carlos with Ramon Vargas is an example of one that doesn't-, with the set looking like a large upper story studio room with large windows and the story reading like a play within a play, however while I understand why people mayn't consider this change adding much to the opera, it didn't detract from my enjoyment of it.

Besides, the sets do look great and the costumes too. Natalie Dessay especially looks radiant and adorable. The take on the story is fresh, with many scenes managing to move me, but there is never not enough room for some touching moments too, as proved with Non Credea Mirati, where a tear can be seen glittering on Dessay's cheek.

The sets and costumes are given full advantage by some very effective night and day lighting, and the picture quality and camera work is consistently excellent. The orchestra play the beautiful score nimbly and stylistically, and the conducting as often seen with these Met productions is done with precision.

Staging is lively and wittily done. I loved the Chorus' coming and going in their civilian clothes, and as a Chorus they sing with good intonation, style and balance, while the climatic sleepwalking scene and Non Credea Mirati serve as the most effectively staged scenes of the production. Dessay walking through the audience was also a nice touch.

The performances are terrific. Natalie Dessay is not quite as wondrous vocally as it was when she was doing the likes of Olympia and Orphelie and I can see where people are coming from when people say that they feel that her interpretations are too original. That said, I loved her here as Amina, she is always such fun to watch, she looks adorable and the colouratura and technique still amazes.

Juan Diego Florez is playing a somewhat two-dimensional character in the name of Elvino, however his acting is done with total conviction, he has very good technique and he hits his notes with effortless ease. The romantic chemistry between Dessay and Florez, particularly in their duets together is most evident and added a furthermore heart-warming element to it.

The support cast also meet expectations, especially Jennifer Black who is wonderfully conniving as Lisa. That is not to dispute Michele Pertusi either as the Count, who gives his usual solid performance.

All in all, very entertaining if not for all. 10/10 Bethany Cox

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