Mary Zimmerman’s new production of Bellini’s gentle masterpiece which was booed after its first performance at the Met was sent all over the world today. And it wasn’t the worst thing since Jacopo Peri. It wasn’t even in the same league of awfulness as Calixto Bieito or Robert Wilson. It was just ordinary silliness. Part of it was even effective. Amina sang “Ah! non credea mirarti” on a narrow platform jutting out over the orchestra. The ridiculous “Aria” scrawled on a blackboard which was scathingly criticized by almost everyone was removed or Barbara Sweete’s video direction hid it. But I don’t think it was there. Ms Sweete is still addicted to closeups. This habit was mitigated by the personal attractiveness of the performers, but she needs to back off. So, would I have booed Zimmerman on opening night? No. But I wouldn’t have applauded either.
Bellini’s opera calls for scenic and directorial austerity. Having the cast tear up everything shredable at the end of the first act was laughable and lessened the impact of Bellini’s beautiful music that concludes the act. Similarly having cuckoo clock dancers prance through the conclusion of the opera was just goofy. Having klutzed her way through Donizetti and Bellini at the Met Zimmerman is going to try for a bel canto trifecta next season when she directs Rossini’s Armida.
Mary Zimmerman has been taking most of the heat for this production, but a lot of it should be aimed at Natalie Dessay. The latter has repeatedly said that La Sonnambula has opera’s worst libretto; she couldn’t have read that many of them. She helped Stephan Grögler destroy the Santa Fe Opera’s production of the opera in 2004. She encouraged Grögler to set the piece in a lunatic asylum. Zimmerman was going to place the story in the traditional Swiss village until Ms Dessay convinced her to move it to a New York rehearsal room. See Steven Blier’s article on the opera in the March 2009 Opera News.) Dessay mugged her way through much of the opera playing for laughs, bits that should have been serious. If she dislikes the opera so much she should perform something else. Bellini deserves better than The Three Stooges.
Vocally she was not as good as she was five years ago. She still can float a line and navigate through the acrobatic parts of her music, but her voice is a little more frayed and her soft singing is not as persuasive as it was a little while ago. “Ah! non credea mirarti” was not as moving as it should have been. Dessay has neither the pathos of Callas nor the vocal artillery of Sutherland. She also doesn’t have a shred of common sense.
Juan Diego Flórez is the undisputed King of the Tenorinos. He has everything you’d want in a bel canto tenor except sweetness of tone. Both his high notes and his coloratura are effortless. If he’s on the bill the opera is worth attending. He’s good looking and moves well on the stage. There’s not a whole lot of acting required from Elvino. He did what was necessary. If he could caress the notes a little more he’d be perfect.
Bass Michele Pertusi has a fine lyric voice and was impressive, both vocally and through his imposing stage presence, as Count Rodolfo. I’d like to hear more from him. Out of curiosity, I wonder where the Count spent the night as Amina was in his bed with him no where in sight.
Jennifer Black acted Lisa better than she sang her. Jane Bunnell was appropriately maternal as Amina’s mother, though she’s too young for the part. But this opera has the world’s worst libretto so who cares.
Evelino Pidò conducted. He was also in the pit during the Santa Fe Massacre. It’s hard to judge an orchestra’s performance from a telecast. Maestro Pidò’s most notable contribution was sartorial. He wasn’t in evening attire, as was the orchestra, as this was a matinée performance. Then again his all black attire without a tie is hard to categorize. My wife thinks he was wearing a Nehru jacket. The dress code police still have not raided the Met. In summary, this was a performance best suited for the radio.
If you’re not familiar with the transcriptions of Italian operas for piano by Sigismond Thalberg you should give them a listen. But get the recording by Francesco Nicolosi. He’s the only pianist I’ve heard play this music who gets all the poetry from Thalberg’s limpid transcriptions. Here’s a bit from Thalberg’s take on La Sonnambula, specifically Ah! non credea mirarti.
Joseph Schmidt was the 20th century tenor who had everything needed for the bel canto repertoire. This rendition of Una furtiva lagrima was recorded live at his American debut in Carnegie Hall in 1937. The 11 second trill is probably a violation of good taste but is a vocal wonder as is the beauty of his voice and the interpolated high note at the end. Schmidt had the most complete vocal technique of any tenor I ever heard; add this to a supremely beautiful voice and you have a miracle.