At first glance, Mary Zimmerman’s staging of Bellini’s “La Sonnambula” appears to offer a solution to money-strapped performing arts organizations everywhere: Present your opera/musical/play/ballet in a contempo rehearsal hall in which the cast, decked out in khakis and sweat shirts, prepares the work in question. The problem is, from the sound of the vociferous boos that greeted Zimmerman and her production team in their one — count ’em, one — curtain call on opening night, the Met audience isn’t buying this cost-saver.
Ultimately, the problem here lies less with Zimmerman than with the conservative Met aud. This will no doubt be a minority opinion, but the director’s opera-within-an-opera conceit fits Bellini’s little-seen work — about a sleep-walker who mistakenly ends up in the wrong man’s bed — like a pair of snug leg-warmers.
That’s the slim plot of “La Sonnambula”: Sleep-walking Amina (Natalie Dessay) is betrothed to Elvino (Juan Diego Florez) but wanders unaware into the bed of a virtual stranger, Count Rodolfo (Michele Pertusi). Does Zimmerman’s take unlock great hidden depths in the libretto? No, but it does give dramatic coherence to Elvino, one of those stock 19th century romantic heroes who falls in and out of love at the drop of a handkerchief.
In the opera’s first half, Zimmerman alternates between scenes of rehearsing “La Sonnambula” and more intimate scenes (the love songs and duets) in which the two lead singers play out their offstage affair. The dramatic back-and-forth between rehearsal and real life sets up Elvino’s jealousy of interloper Rodolfo, who may be a new stage director, impresario or last-minute cast replacement. Working behind the scenes to further her own romantic ambitions, and eventually throw the rehearsals into chaos, is stage manager Lisa (Jennifer Black).
The rehearsal-hall milieu not only highlights Amina’s self-absorption, which leads to her sleep-walking, but makes total sense of the choristers’ superstition (“la fantasma”) that is part and parcel of any theater.
The conceptual frenzy of act one calms down a bit in act two, and until the very final scene, in which the singers break into a fully realized production of “La Sonnambula,” we follow the soprano and tenor as they convincingly enact their backstage story. The love scenes between Dessay and Florez are everything they should be: tender, impulsive and achingly real. These two singers are great actors, and Florez absolutely owns the bel canto repertoire with his clear, focused, impassioned tenor.
If there are quibbles with Zimmerman’s concept (and her detractors will jump on this point), it’s in her handling of Amina’s cabalettas. Instead of a total unleashing of excitement and passion, she turns them into comic moments. In recent years, we’ve seen sopranos go into coloratura overdrive because they’re injecting heroin or having sex, both of which make sense. But to have Amina shoot off vocal fireworks because she objects to a wig or is being thrown about by a bunch of chorus boys runs counter to what the music tells us.
The greater problem may be that Dessay, at this stage in her career, can no longer turns these cabalettas into the showstoppers that other sopranos (Callas, Sutherland, Scotto) made them, going for easy laughs instead.
“La Sonnambula” will be transmitted live to movie theaters nationwide on March 21.