La Sonnambula Florez Dessay Natalie

Opera directors must have decided that the plot of La Sonnambula is so silly that it can never be performed in its proper period. The only other production of this opera that I have seen was set at an Edwardian picnic. For the Met's new production, director Mary Zimmerman sets the opera in a rehearsal room, so that it looks as though we are seeing a rehearsal of the opera with the principals and chorus in their everyday clothes. I'm not convinced by this approach. Obviously 19th century audiences found the idea of sleepwalking quite sexy, the idea that a young woman might wander into someone else's bedroom without knowing what she is doing. We are more blasé about sleepwalking today but it still pops up as a defence in murder trials where husbands claim to have strangled their wives in their sleep.

What really matters is that it gives us the chance to hear the world's two leading bel canto singers at the height of their powers. Juan Diego Florez and Natalie Dessay are simply sensational and, unusually for bel canto, they get the chance to show off their ability in a series of duets. I have never heard such precisely phrased duet singing apart, perhaps, from the Everly Brothers.

Mary Zimmerman's staging is most effective in the sleepwalking scenes. In the first, Natalie Dessay enters at the back of the theatre and wanders through the audience. In the second she walks along the window-ledge on the outside of the rehearsal room. Then, a section of the stage moves forward so that she is suspended over the orchestra pit to sing the sleepwalking aria which is the climax of the piece.

I have been watching the Met chorus all season so it was a treat to see them in their everyday clothes without wigs and costumes. Finally, everyone does dress up in their Swiss villager costume for a sort of parody of a traditional production. Natalie Dessay is tossed in the air as she hits one final spectacular high note. I was walking on air too.

NEW YORK -- A few years ago, it seemed that Bellini's operas were seldom performed. Now they're done all the time, in part because of the ascendancy of two sopranos -- Natalie Dessay and Anna Netrebko -- who are seen as ideal for this repertory. Netrebko did Bellini's "La Sonnambula" in Vienna in 2006. Cecilia Bartoli, the mezzo-soprano, has just recorded it for a CD. And on Monday night, the Metropolitan Opera's new production, with Dessay, earned boos at its first performance. (The production will be shown live in movie theaters on March 21.)

One reason not to do "Sonnambula" is that it's silly: Oh-so-innocent young girl loves boy, sleepwalks, is found sleeping in strange man's room, regains trust of lover. But plenty of operas are silly and are staged nonetheless, because of the music. The Met's problem was that it approached the opera backward, engaging the stage director Mary Zimmerman -- a tacit indication that the staging will play a leading role -- and two proven leads, Dessay and Juan Diego Flórez, but leaving the conductor as the weakest part of the equation.

Bel canto opera only sounds easy. To bring it off you need a musical leader who can weave all those delicate musical threads into a single strand. Evelino Pidò, in the orchestra pit, was not that leader, and the music was wishy-washy as a result. The chorus, which has been sounding fantastic since Donald Palumbo took over as chorus master in 2007, was not fantastic at all. And even the good leads found the opera somewhat heavy to carry entirely on their own.

In a recent profile in the New Yorker, Dessay said that "it's almost impossible to sing and really act at the same time." This statement perfectly sums up the weaknesses in her performance. When she is focused on singing -- as when she sleepwalked through the auditorium, one of the most satisfying moments of the evening -- her voice fills out and expands through the house. But acting is her calling card; when she is building character, adorable though she be, she scales back her singing, and it is simply less interesting.

Flórez is singing really well these days. Always a formidable technician, he seems to have tempered the bothersome driven quality in his voice, and his sound is more supple and elastic (he also stars on the Bartoli recording). Like Dessay, he has to contend with the restrictions imposed by a smaller voice. His voice, like hers, blossomed when he focused wholly on the singing (particularly in their Act 1 duet and in his cabaletta after Elvino, his character, rejects his bride in Act 2).

The other singers all did what they could. I found the bass Michele Pertusi disappointingly pale as the Count (whose simple aria is a favorite). Jennifer Black was a lively, brassy Lisa; Jane Bunnell was fine as Teresa, and Jeremy Galyon made his company debut as the bumpkin Alessio.

But what about those boos?

I, too, have approached this performance backward. For while I believe the music comes first, what drew the boos on Monday night, and what everybody will be buzzing about for days to come, was Zimmerman's production.

Zimmerman did a lot better with this than she did with her last Met outing, the unfortunate "Lucia di Lammermoor" (also with Dessay) that the Met just revived with Netrebko and broadcast in movie theaters last month. She hasn't learned to work with a chorus yet -- her crowd scenes are generally disastrous -- but she managed to make a few things happen on the stage, like that inspired sleepwalking scene.

But sadly, the production still didn't quite work. And because it is more daring than the "Lucia" -- the conceit is that the cast is meeting in a New York loft space to rehearse the opera, and their characters' actions bleed over into real life -- it is probably going to bother people more than "Lucia" did.

It's refreshing to see Amina depicted with some spunkiness. The heroine is usually so naive and vulnerable as to become cloying. Here, instead, she made a diva entrance, talking on her cellphone while chorus members, all in street clothes, gathered around to take her coat and present costume options to her. And Elvino (Flórez) was the diva's real-life lover, who proposes marriage during a break in the rehearsal proper.

Well and good. But then the Count enters, and the stage manager, Lisa, fixes him up with a bed for the night. Who is the Count, and why is he sleeping in a rehearsal room? Why is the diva napping on the job, or is she supposed to be in character when she starts sleepwalking? Confusion is a hallmark of bel canto operas, but it shouldn't extend to the audience as well. And the Act 1 finale, which had the chorus throwing torn-up paper and cups around the room, was inexplicable.

I have no problem with updating opera or reinterpreting it, as long as the whole thing hangs together. But in order to work, it has to make sense. This production managed to follow the contours of the story while making no sense at all. At the end, the whole chorus appeared for the first time in quaint Swiss costume: Okay, they're putting on the show now; I get it. But how did that fit Zimmerman's conceit? Perhaps by her next Met production, Rossini's "Armida" in April 2010, she will be comfortable enough with opera to deliver something better than merely the next step on what is, apparently, a long learning curve.


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