A scene from Bellini's "La Sonnambula" with Javier Camarena as Elvino and Diana Damrau as Amina.
(Photo : Photo: Jonathan Tichler/Metropolitan Opera)
Opera is often considered the ultimate art form in which all other forms come together to create a potent whole. It is often unrealistic to expect the wholes to come together in perfect harmony every single time an opera is staged and often times the transcendence of certain elements is more than enough to make up for other subpar qualities in a performance. This is precisely what happened on Friday March 14 when the Met Opera revived Bellini's "La Sonnambula" for the first time since 2009.
The first major touchstone of Friday's performance was soprano Diana Damrau, who was making her role debut as Amina. Damrau is one the finest artists in the opera world today and always seems to maintain a wondrous balance between her vocal dynamism and her terrific acting ability. As written by Felice Romani, Amina is an innocent girl who is about to get married to her beloved Elvino. However, she is unknowingly a sleepwalker and gets herself in some trouble with her lover because of it. In the current Met production, Amina is the lead singer in "La Sonnambula."
As portrayed by Damrau, this prima donna is far from a diva. She loves the warmth and admiration that she receives from her fellow colleagues, but instead of being rude or obnoxious (as a stereotypical portrayal of a diva would be), she is kind and playful; at one point, she tries on a wig and after finding it inappropriate, places it on the head of one of the costume designers to prove her point. Earlier in that same scene she tried on some nice shoes and showed off some beautifully executed pirouettes. Throughout these opening arias "A te diletta, tenera madre" and "Sopra il sen la man mi posa" her voice was imbued with a relaxed brightness that only added to the delightful nature of Amina; they also showcased Damrau's technical mastery. Her cadenza in the opening aria rose to a breathtaking high note that made a slow diminuendo that added to Amina's angelic qualities. The coloratura in the second aria was effortless and yet Damrau took full advantage of the rubati presented to her throughout the cabaletta; her use of rubato enhanced the staging and gave vocal expression to her hesitance to accept the wigs and other clothing.
After receiving Elvino's "real-life proposal" she grabs her phone and runs out of the room in excitement; she's just another woman that needs to tell all her friends the good news. But this is not a portrayal of a pure innocence. During the famed love duet "Son geloso del zefiro errante" not only did she flirt with Elvino, but there seemed to be a few moments of intended seduction; as things got a bit heated, Damrau's Amina restrained her sexual impulses. Throughout this scene Damrau spun elegant legati, her voice blending wonderfully with tenor Javier Camarena.
As the work heads into darker territory, particularly when Elvino rejects Amina for her supposed infidelity, Damrau's Amina seemingly lost that innocence; the exuberance and playfulness of the first scenes was replaced by a more static stage presence that seemed to embody Amina's increasing deterioration. Right after Elvino declares that there will be no wedding at the end of Act 1, Damrau's voice peak in a vicious high note that sounded like a tragic cry of despair. Throughout the opening scene of Act 2 in which Elvino humiliates her, Damrau's voice took on a harsh complexion as she pleaded with him; the visceral qualities of her texture and sound adding to the desperation. Her added tragic dimension added realism to Amina's borderline suicidal sleepwalking near the end of the opera and made the glorious "Ah! Non Credea mirarti" all the more powerful. Standing on a wooden plank hanging over the orchestra, the soprano spun one lush legato line after another; her voice maintained a rather subdued quality that only emphasized the internal pain and suffering of Amina. On the words "Ma ravvivar l'amore," her voice became hushed and delicate; the trill at the end of the first part of this phrase turned into quiet weeping.
During the final moments of the aria, in which the soprano sings with a solo cello, Damrau's voice took on a disembodied quality that was truly crushing. The overall arc of the aria felt like the final phase in Amina's disintegration. During the final "Ah! Non giunge uman pensiero," Damrau literally pulled out all the stops physically. She danced about and sang a high e-flat suspended in midair; she followed that with a terrific chromatic descent as she was placed on the flora. The coloratura was at its most breathtaking in this climactic cabaletta and Damrau even did two cartwheels during the aria's coda to a tremendous audience ovation. Her final high note was one of valediction as she held through the orchestra's final bars. Damrau's performance was not only a tremendous amount of fun to behold but also added tremendous depth to a role often dismissed as one-dimension.
Javier Camarena was the other major highlight of the evening. His voice is filled with expressive power and volume. His entrance aria "Prendi: l'anel ti dono" was filled with tenderness and delicacy. During the final concertato of Act 1, his singing started off with fragile colors, but seemed to grow in intensity as the piece moved toward its climax; the pain of Elvino becoming more and more powerful. His subsequent delivery of the lines "Non piu nozze" was filled with tremendous anger. The subsequent lines before the concluding stretta were even more raw and harsh in their delivery, truly embodying the blind rage of Elvino.
The start of Act 2 features Elvino's big vocal moment. At the start of "Tutto e sciolto" his voice was rather subdued in its expression, as if he were trying to restrain the hurt; the "Tutto" was given a beautifully subtle, sustained crescendo. At the end of the opening statement of the aria, he gave the word "amor" a diminuendo that died away that expressed the loss Elvino feels in that moment. In the ensuing section "Pasci il guardo", in which he admonished Amina, his voice took on a vigor that grew in intensity; the high notes throughout this section were powerful and resonant, each one a mixed cry of despair and anger. By the end of the aria, with its abundance of rubati, it almost seemed as Camarena's Elvino was ready to explode into tears. During the ensuing "Ah! Perche non posso odiarti," Camarena's voice was filled with pleading and even some self-loathing and frustration; he climaxed the first section of the aria with a thrilling high note that revealed the depth of his Elvino's suffering.
The final note of the aria was sustained throughout the entire orchestral coda and was greeted with some of the most enthusiastic applause of the evening. During the quartet later in the act in which Elvino finds that Lisa, his replacement for Amina, has also been faithful, he climaxed the ensemble with another beautiful high note that was followed with a chromatic descent, each note sounding like a distressed sob. During the "Ah! Non Credea mirarti," he sang with uttermost delicacy during Elvino's two intervening lines.
The rest of the cast held up nicely. Rachelle Durkin was amusing as Lisa and managed to make the character more than just a whining antagonist. Her voice had a grainy quality and her high notes often came off as shrill; however she managed some nice coloratura during her brief aria. Michele Pertrusi's voice has an elegance and lightness that personifies the Count Rodolfo while Elizabeth Bishop's weighty mezzo as Amina's mother Teresa counteracted the delicacy of Damrau's vocal texture. The chorus was remarkably active throughout the night and presented the viewer with some comic moments.
Marco Armiliato was serviceable from the podium, but the orchestra seemed a bit off throughout. The openings of both acts were littered with miscues in the brass. The cello solo during "Ah! Non Credea mirarti" seemed to rush Damrau at one point. Aside from that, the orchestra played its role as accompanist well without ever overpowering the singers.
The problem with the evening was the production. Back in 2009, Mary Zimmerman's production was greeted with boos on opening night and harsh reviews thereafter. Five years later it is rather surprising that it still exists as in that short time it has aged poorly. Not all productions are expected to hit every mark. But there are unfortunately some productions that fail to hit any mark. Among those in recent Met history are the Luc Bondy "Tosca," the Des McAnuff "Faust" and this "Sonnambula." However, this may be rock bottom compared to the other ones as it not only misses the mark throughout the night, but the viewer often questions what the intentions were in the first place. Felice Romani's libretto for the Bellini opera is often blasted for its seemingly lack of believability. Afterall, who can actually believe that Amina is going to sleepwalk into the count's room out of the blue and then later on manage to walk on a rooftop while she sleeps? And how is it possible that the village folk have no idea what a sleepwalker is? The opera also leaves some issues unresolved, such as the Count's relationship with Amina; he hints that his past lover used to look like her suggesting that he might somehow be her father(the libretto provides no hints of Amina's father existing). Some of these issues are easily argued away when placed in the context of unsophisticated and highly superstitious village folk.
Zimmerman, seemingly attempting to modernize the story and give credibility to it, decided to set it in a modern day opera rehearsal room where Amina is the leading soprano and Elvino her co-star. Lisa is the stage manager and the rest of the cast of characters are either players or stage hands. Naturally, the characters are putting on a production of "La Sonnambula" and the initial intention is to blur the line between reality and fantasy. But, with a few exceptions, there is rarely a moment when the viewer actually understands when the characters are in the world of the production and when they are in the world of the rehearsal room. Most of the time they seem to occupy the latter, which makes some scenes jarring and even more nonsensical than in their original context. The arrival of the count is arguably the most prominent of these jarring moments. He talks of remembering the forest and landscapes throughout his aria; what forests would he remember in a rehearsal room? He also speaks of a prince and count; what prince or count could exist in a modern-day opera company? Then he asks for a place to stay and is conveniently allowed to remain in the rehearsal room; does Zimmerman mean to say that Lisa or someone else could not offer him the couch in their respective apartments? A bed is brought out into the rehearsal room for him, but for some reason, a false door is also brought out. Is this supposed to showcase a different setting that is not part of the rehearsal room? The lack of definition in the production makes these kinds of scene changes all the more confusing. And finally, how does Amina wind up in the rehearsal room again? Is her apartment located in the same building? Or did the guards outside let her sleepwalk in without any concerns? Amina's sleepwalking is rather frustrating for viewers sitting at the top of the opera house. Amina walks through the orchestra section, breaking the fourth wall and presumably supporting Zimmerman's ill-conceived thesis; however those in the family circle and some in the balcony are unlikely to see her at all until she reaches the stage.
The final scene only enhances the silliness as Elvino's statement that the wedding will not go on motivates the entire cast and crew to trash the place. Why would they start emptying trash cans and making a mess? Do they not have any pride in their work place or are they simply a bunch of idiots? Zimmerman gives more credence to the latter concept earlier in the work. At one point in the opera, the village folk tell the Count that a ghost walks around at night; that is Amina of course, but the superstitious and unsophisticated people of the Swiss village would be forgiven for being so naïve. However, it is completely inconceivable that every single person in a modern opera company would give any credence to such a fairy tale.
A latter scene in which the Count pulls out a book to teach everyone about sleepwalking is just as objectionable in its execution and pretense. A few conclusions emerge from watching this production. First off, Zimmerman has managed to turn a questionable story into a farce; the transposition of rural village folk to a modern-day opera company is particularly unflattering in its portrayal to the latter group. It might seem funny at some moments, but it is virtually impossible to take seriously for the duration. Secondly, it is highly recommended that the viewer not even bother reading the subtitles during this performance for a less frustrating experience; it is clear that the director was not particularly concerned with it in the first place. The opera would probably have better served against a black backdrop in concert performance than in the Zimmerman production.
The most important conclusion, however, is that Bellini's "Sonnambula" is worth seeing for Damrau and Camarena alone. Despite the poor production, these two great artists and their colleagues make the evening fulfilling on an emotional and musical level.