Superbly Sung Sonnambula At The Met

Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Center, NY; March 25, 2014—Opera lovers are fully aware that the plot of Vincenzo Bellini’s La sonnambula is threadbare and silly: When a Swiss village girl (Amina) is found asleep in a stranger’s (Count Rodolfo’s) room at an inn, she gets ensnared in a jealousy triangle (Lisa, the innkeeper, is in love with Amina’s fiancé, Elvino) and Elvino dumps her. It seems she is the town sleepwalker (and thus finds herself in the Count’s room), and when this is discovered, all is forgiven–and forgotten–and joy reigns supreme. Bellini has turned this nonsense into slightly more than two hours of gorgeous bel canto melody, with a lovely, pure heroine at its center.

Mary Zimmerman’s Met production, five years old this month, is a reductio ad absurdum: A small opera company is in rehearsal for Sonnambula; the lead soprano and tenor are a couple both offstage and on; the actions of the opera are mirrored by the cast; clothing is contemporary; people are on cell phones; the rehearsal space is a large loft-like room with large windows and a metal staircase somewhere in downtown Manhattan (sets are by Daniel Ostling); a blackboard is used to indicate scene changes and Lisa is the stage manager, in addition to playing Lisa in the “opera”.

The choristers and onlookers become so enraged by the breakup of the two stars—Elvino and Amina—that they tear up their scores and shred clothing during the finale to Act 1. At other times, however, they simply look bored. A subplot has a character named Alessio pining for Lisa, unrequitedly–it makes no sense in this “rehearsal” context. The artificiality has been underscored almost to distraction. If—and this is a big “if”—the audience has bought into this metaphor, as un-thought-through and confusing as it is, Zimmerman then pulls the carpet out for the opera’s finale: everyone appears in Swiss village costumes, singing and dancing merrily. Aside from two very effective moments for Amina’s sleepwalking scenes—in the first she enters, asleep, spotlit, down an aisle from the rear of the Met; in the second she is first seen outside the windows and has to be brought in from the ledge—this is an obnoxious production that treats the opera as a farce and does it no good whatsoever.

But as in all bel canto operas, particularly by Bellini, the singing is the thing, and it had better be good. In the Met’s revival, it is close to perfect. Diana Damrau, always a fine singing actress, is in stupendous voice—any shrillness that was present in her performances in Le Comte Ory a few seasons back is gone. Bravely acting up a storm in Zimmerman’s conception, she still manages to create Amina’s lovely character through her beautiful, touching music. From her opening, warm, “Care campagne” through the fine fiorature of “Sovra il sen” and her two love duets with Elvino, and on to her horror and sadness during the first finale, Damrau sang with assurance, nuance, and focused tone. Her final Sleepwalking Scene—the recit and aria, “Ah, non credea…” sung with pure, seamless legato and pearly tone—created a magical hold-your-breath moment throughout the house. And the final free-for-all in dirndls and lederhosen was made tolerable by Damrau’s witty, joyous singing of her cabaletta, not to mention her dancing and—wait for it—cartwheels. Try though she might, Zimmerman is unable to negate Amina’s innate sweetness and innocence.

Tenors who can sing the high-flying, mostly tender, occasionally enraged role of Elvino are very rare—Juan Diego Florez sang in it 2009—but the young Mexican tenor Javier Camarena proved even finer than Florez. He possesses a beautiful, rounded tone that is available at all volume levels, a wonderful stage manner, true charisma, and good chemistry with Damrau’s Amina. His phrasing is musical and diction clear, all the way up to the role’s Bs, Cs, and an interpolated D.

Bass Michele Petrusi lends a welcoming voice and smooth delivery to the role of Count Rodolfo and does what he can to make the role a viable dramatic entity in this messy production. Lisa is directed to be brassy and, indeed Rachelle Durkin sings and acts the role that way, interpolating wild high notes into her second-act aria. Baritone Jordan Bisch looks forlorn as Alessio—and who can blame him?

Marco Armiliato’s conducting was not only singer-friendly, but lively and touching by turns, as if to attempt to ignore the business that is going on onstage. The Met orchestra and chorus treated the opera with great respect and sounded wonderful.