Bellini La Sonnambula Dessay Hates

La Sonnambula is a story of true love thwarted by jealousy then joyously restored, among peasants so unsophisticated they believe ghost stories but have never heard of sleepwalking. The urbane Milanese observed this with the proper degree of condescension – it was quaint, but it wasn’t fluff; the feelings are real; Bellini makes them so; the rest is up to the singers. Peasant society as a place of seething, primal passions was the trope of later generations. Of course, urban audiences enjoyed feeling superior to that, too.

Pastoral fantasy is long out of fashion, and it’s evidently something Peter Gelb at the Met and director Mary Zimmerman are ashamed of – sufficiently ashamed for Gelb to dismiss the opera’s plot publicly, and for Zimmerman to ignore it in her staging, which is not so much post-modern as a bunch of casual goofs on Sonnambula – there is no coherent story line in it, because the characters must change personality drastically from one moment to the next, alternately following Zimmerman’s “concept” or singing Bellini’s opera – the two have little in common, and no one onstage can be in just one or the other – Zimmerman has seen to that.

She has set the piece in a rehearsal hall in Manhattan during the run up to a performance of La Sonnambula – okay – starring a self-important diva who chatters on a cell phone during her sortita and is betrothed to the star tenor – okay – and the diva’s jealous rival has become the sulky stage manager. But then real feelings leap out of the music, and real words (Zimmerman knows no Italian, but there are titles on the seat backs), and these modern figures cannot be using these 1831 words. They don’t make sense in 2009. Try to imagine an opera chorus in contemporary New York who refuse to believe in sleepwalking – have they never heard of Macbeth? Or a visiting star baritone (as Bellini’s Count has become) who, instead of taking a luxury hotel room for the night (hey, even during a blizzard, it’s a short cab or subway to the Pierre), is forced to sack out on a cot in the rehearsal hall just so the diva can turn up in his bed. (Why else would this happen?) Or any celebrity tenor who, on finding his celebrity soprano untrue, marries his ex the very next day. Move out and shack up, yes; but marry? Church bells and all?

It’s not just that all this is trivial or perverse – it’s that puzzling over whether a singer (or the chorus) is sincere or playing the play within the play at every single moment gets in the way of being able to hear, and appreciate, the music-making.

Juan Diego Flórez as Elvino and Natalie Dessay as Amina

I do understand why the chorus, at the end of Act I, rhythmically tear up their scores and toss them about like confetti, while spinning the heroine around on her bed: Mary Zimmerman does not know, understand, accept that music has a place in opera; she does not believe it is important or interesting; she wants to distract us with some activity or other so we won’t be bothered by all that stuff being played and sung – you know – the music? The reason the rest of us go to the opera, and wanted to revive this delicate piece in the first place? Yes, the woman who slew the sextet in Lucia is at it again. She doesn’t like opera, and it sure don’t like her.

Now you can see how this all came about, in a brain-storming session with much laughter and, perhaps, alcohol: Amina sleepwalks across a mill-race? How about a Manhattan ledge in a snowstorm? (laughter) And theater people are all superstitious, right? So they believe there’s a rehearsal hall ghost. (laughter) And turn jealous Lisa into an irritable stage manager. Brilliant! And Elvino into a star tenor (like Florez) whose romance with the diva is the talk of the tabloids (like Gheorghiu or Netrebko). Genius! But it’s not; it just makes us uncertain who is singing any phrase at any particular time. It takes away much and adds nothing. This is not updating – it’s frat house or SNL skit. (I’m surprised the Count isn’t in drag.)

Jennifer Black as Lisa

The thing is, this cast could have put the piece over as written. Whenever Juan Diego lets loose with his soaring high notes, he is not merely a joy to hear, he is expressing real feeling – not the feeling of whoever, whatever, he is supposed to be playing in this “concept,” but the feeling Bellini bestowed on the character of Elvino. And when Natalie Dessay, alone in a spotlight on a plank over the orchestra pit, sings the dreamy, endlessly unreeling melody of Amina’s climactic sleepwalk (the melody Chopin asked to have played to him while he was dying), she holds the house silent and breathless on the thread of her voice. In short – they could have played this thing straight, and it would have been great theater, and we’d have been able to enjoy the rest of it, too.

Yes, Sonnambula, relic of a forgotten genre, the pathetic opera semiseria, is a problem to present nowadays. But there are ways to present Sonnambula that do not oblige you to disbelieve in the characters, to doubt the meaning of every word they sing. The problem is not their words or actions, but our attitude, and a great director would realize we are the ones who must be transformed, brought into the proper frame of mind. When Luchino Visconti directed Maria Callas in La Sonnambula, he staged the piece in the manner of a “peasant” ballet like Giselle, costumes, gestures, movements stylized to lure the viewer into the acceptance of convention we bring to romantic dance. It was a triumph, for Visconti, for Callas’s virtuosic singing and acting, and for Bellini – whose operas no longer had to blush on the modern stage.

If you ignored the stage antics, if you were lucky enough to be stuck at home, you could derive a great deal of pleasure from listening to this Sonnambula. Florez’s voice has expanded to handle the exquisite bel canto phrases, and though he can be a trifle nasal, he shows no sign of strain as he inhabits the too-trusting, too-bitter, repentant Elvino. His brilliant B-flat fills the huge house. His leap to head voice (perfectly acceptable in Bellini’s time, deplored nowadays) is not only well executed, he maneuvers it into an expression of dramatic despair. Michele Pertusi makes a suavely supercilious Count – pity he doesn’t get to reprise his cabaletta, one of my favorite tunes. Jennifer Black, the flirty Lisa, acts vividly and sings her little arias with charm if perhaps too dark a sound – I suspect and hope there is Verdi in her future. Evelino Pidò is eminently the first thing one wants in a bel canto conductor: supportive of the singers. Bellini is not a man to cover a voice – on the contrary, he notoriously exposes it, often with only the lightest film of orchestral accompaniment. There’s no place to hide if you are singing Bellini.

Natalie Dessay sings the long and arduous role of Amina very prettily, aside from a few squally high notes, and phrases the great “Ah, non credea” languorously, as if, well, asleep and dreaming – but holding the whole house breathless to her every tone. Her sleepwalk on a ledge does not quite come over – she can never just do something; she has to futz with it, as she did with Lucia’s mad scene. This is a sleep walk, not a sleep mambo. I liked her acting as Amina and I was amused by her acting as a diva, but it was a pity she did both in the same performance – it was impossible to believe they were the same woman. One of them was just a performance, but which?

On March 11, even she seemed unsure – she blew her cue for the final cabaletta twice, though she managed to “work it into” the performance so that those attending for the first time thought she’d done it on purpose. Perhaps she did. There’s no earthly way to tell which of her jokes were to be laughed at and which not, and it was frustrating to have to spend so much time working that out. The last Sonnambula I saw, Ruth Ann Swenson’s in an unstaged concert by Opera Orchestra of New York at Carnegie Hall, was not only more beautifully sung, it was far closer to the dramatic truth of the piece.

John Yohalem

A misunderstanding disrupts marriage plans in 'La Sonnambula'. Opéra national de Paris/ Julien Benhamou hide caption

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Opéra national de Paris/ Julien Benhamou

A misunderstanding disrupts marriage plans in 'La Sonnambula'.

Opéra national de Paris/ Julien Benhamou

The opera takes place in a Swiss village early in the 19th century. ACT ONE opens in the village square where there's an inn, and the local mill, nestled in the background. A chorus of villagers is joyous, but the young woman Lisa, who owns the inn, is down in the dumps. Her former lover, Elvino, a successful farmer, is about to be engaged to someone else — namely Amina, an orphan, brought up by Teresa, who runs the mill.

A man called Alessio rushes in and hugs an unenthusiastic Lisa. He's in love with her, but she pays him little attention. As the villagers arrive to celebrate Amina's engagement, she comes out of the mill with Teresa, and thanks them. Amina naively wishes Alessio and Lisa well, and Teresa notices Lisa's unfriendly reaction.

A notary enters, announcing the arrival of the groom, Elvino. With the notary as a witness, Elvino pledges everything he has to Amina, and she replies that all she has to offer in return is her heart. In their duet, Elvino gives Amina a ring that belonged to his mother, and a bouquet of wildflowers. They are now officially engaged.

The sound of coach wheels is heard, and a stranger enters; he's on his way to a nearby castle, but doesn't know exactly where it is. Lisa says he'll never make it by nightfall, and invites him to stay over at her inn. The villagers don't recognize him, but he remembers the mill and the countryside. He says that when he was young, he briefly lived in the castle he's looking for, and wonders what became of the count who owned it. The others tell him the count died long ago, and his heirs are missing. This stranger, Rodolfo, is quickly smitten by Amina, who reminds him of a youthful love.

It's now dusk and Teresa urges everyone to leave. She warns Rodolfo about a phantom, in white clothes, that haunts the area at night. Rodolfo is skeptical, but the villagers back up her story, describing the ghost to Rodolfo. He says a fervent good night to Amina, much to Elvino's indignation. Left alone, Elvino and Amina quarrel, and then make up, in a florid duet.

In the next scene, at the inn, Rodolfo is flirting with Lisa, who tells him that the local mayor has recognized him as the old count's legal heir, and thus the new lord of the castle. They're startled by a noise, and as Lisa hurriedly leaves, she drops her kerchief. Amina, dressed in white, comes in through the window; she's walking in her sleep, and Rodolfo realizes that she must be the "phantom" the villagers have been seeing.

In disjointed phrases Amina talks about her forthcoming marriage, Elvino's jealousy, and their quarrel. Rodolfo refrains from taking advantage of "this pure and innocent flower," and exits through the window, leaving Amina asleep in his room.

When the villagers arrive to welcome Rodolfo as castle's new lord, they're amused when they discover a girl in Rodolfo's bed. They're about to leave discreetly when Lisa walks in with Elvino and Teresa. Lisa triumphantly points to the sleeping girl, and everyone is shocked when they recognize Amina.

The commotion wakes Amina. She's confused, and says — honestly — that she has no idea how she wound up in Rodolfo's room. But the villagers denounce her, saying she's lying. Teresa, the only one who believes her, picks up the kerchief Lisa dropped earlier, mistaking it for Amina's, and puts it round Amina's neck. As the act ends, Elvino is convinced that Amina has betrayed him, and angrily calls off their wedding.

ACT TWO opens in a valley between the village and the local castle. The villagers are headed for the castle to put Amina's case to Count Rodolfo, while Amina seeks consolation from Teresa.

Meanwhile, Elvino is miserable, and treats Amina with anger. The villagers return, announcing that the Count has exonerated Amina. But that's not good enough for Elvino, who furiously snatches his ring from Amina, refusing to take her back.

In the next scene, in the village square, Lisa again brushes off Alessio's advances. With Amina in disgrace, she's now free to marry Elvino, who seems agreeable. He kisses her hand and leads her towards the church, while Rodolfo, arriving with the villagers, proclaims Amina's innocence.

In a quartet, the Count tries to explain to Elvino that Amina never betrayed him — she really was sleep-walking. Meanwhile, Teresa is shocked to see that Elvino is about to marry Lisa, who helpfully points out that she was not the one who turned up in another man's room. But there's proof that she had been in Rodolfo's room! She left in a hurry when Amina turned up, dropping her kerchief in the process. And when Teresa produces that kerchief, Elvino realizes that Lisa has been lying.

Then, as everyone is in an uproar, a white figure appears on the roof of the mill. It's Amina, sleepwalking again. To the relief of the crowd, she descends without falling.

Still asleep, Amina begins to sing about Elvino and her grief over losing him. The beauty of her sentiment convinces everyone, including Elvino, that she is innocent after all. Elvino returns the engagement ring to Amina's finger, and she's gently awakened. She and Elvino are both overjoyed, and as the opera ends, the villagers hurry them off to the church to be married.

Natalie Dessay ………… Amina

Javier Camarena ……… Elvino

Marie-Adeline Henry ……. Lisa

Michele Pertusi …….… Rodolfo

Cornelia Oncioiu …..….. Teresa

Nahuel de Pierro ……… Alessio

Jian-Hong Zhao ……… Notary

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