When I was studying music at Williams College my professor Robert Barrow, the chairman of the department and a figure of magisterial austerity, said that whenever he went to the Met to hear Wagner he always demanded a seat behind a post. I can’t remember if the old Met really had a seat behind a post, but if you went to see Mary Zimmerman’s 2009 production of Bellini’s La Sonnambula at the “new” Met, a seat behind a post would add immeasurably to your enjoyment of Bellini’s melodic gem. I’ve previously described the awfulness of her staging – the picture above the title shows what she did to the first act finale. Thus when the opportunity to listen to the Met’s new cast perform the opera without the possibility of seeing anything came I was ready. Well almost ready. I missed the broadcast prima because of a previous engagement. But I cleared my calendar for Tuesday’s performance.
I couldn’t entirely escape Ms Zimmerman’s production as the audience frequently laughed at inappropriate times. Nevertheless, I could concentrate on the music without having to deal with directorial mischief. The opera was brought back as a vehicle for Diana Damrau. The opera also provided a showcase for its tenor, Javier Camarena. He made his Met debut in Rossini’s Barber in 2011.
La Sonnambula is about Amina and Elvino who are engaged. Elvino discovers his sweetheart in another man’s bed. She claims somnambulism as an excuse. After some hesitation he accepts her explanation. They’re Swiss and he’s a tenor. This slender yarn was enough for Bellini to write a succession of gorgeous tunes for his two principals. They sing on and on like two canaries on 10 grams a day of stanozolol. Simply put if you have a great soprano and tenor it’s best to let them sing with a minimum of directorial interference. Bellini’s music is more than enough to carry the show.
First Ms Damrau. Lately she’s been a vocal alchemist – turning sound into gold and vice versa. Her voice is lush and she can warble like a nightingale. Google which reads everything I write has just ordered me to stop the avian references, so I will. What I’m trying to say is that she can sing very well – trills, runs, roulades, mordents, melismas, sforzandos, morendos, filatura, coloratura, and a smooth vocal line are all hers. She is the reason to perform La Sonnambula.
Javier Camarena is yet another Mexican tenor. Mexico seems to have as many good tenors a west Texas has blowing dust. Mr Camarena who will be 38 next week has a large tenorino voice. I know that’s like saying jumbo shrimp, but it’s true. His repertoire is all bel canto and Mozart with Verdi’s Fenton thrown in. His voice has a firm base. He can go very high and sing with an expressive line. His Elvino is as good or even better than Juan Diego Florez’s impersonation. But Raúl Giménez still holds the ribbon for the most expressive and virtuosic Elvino in recent memory.
The rest of the cast was competent which is all that is required of them for a successful mounting of Bellini’s gossamer opera. Marco Armiliato kept everyone together, contrary to what the New York Times said of his leadership at the opening performance of this run.
To get a sense of what the two principals provided listen to the concertato that ends the first act. La Sonnambula Act 1 finale. Both the adagio and stretta are the example that Verdi used to such masterly effect throughout the first half of his career. Damrau and Camarena give all the reason needed to listen to Bellini’s semi-seria masterpiece. In fact, you’ll probably enjoy it more on a broadcast than in the house.
Photo: Richard Perry/New York Times
Metropolitan Opera House
March 18, 2014 Broadcast
Vincenzo Bellini-Felice Romani
Set Designer…………Daniel Ostling
Costume Designer……..Mara Blumenfeld
Lighting Designer…….T. J. Gerckens