Bellini's La Sonnambula has that unfortunate combination of boasting one of the most melodically inspired scores of all time with one of the most insipid, insufferable librettos. Imagine a rustic comedy, but without the comedy. That's La Sonnambula. The story's main point hinges on the fact that the engaged Amina is a sleepwalker, and thus sleepwalks into the presence of a man not her fiance. When this shocking development happens, here is the village's reaction:
Il tuo nero tradimento
È palese e chiaro assai.
In qual cor fidar più mai,
Se quel cor fu mentitor?
Which translates approximately into:
Your black betrayal
is obvious and very clear.
What if this innocent girl,
in her heart was liar?
What if this innocent girl,
in her heart was liar?
In the opera, people constantly speak about "the church," "the castle," "the priest," "the innocent girl," and "sin." It's probably prim and prissy enough to make even The Duggars sick.
Yet it's stayed in the repertoire, because, as I said, Bellini's score is a constant stream of melody, each one more beautiful than the last. From Giuditta Pasta (the originator) to Jenny Lind to Adelina Patti to Maria Callas to Joan Sutherland to Renata Scotto, diva after diva has decided that Amina was the perfect vehicle to showcase their vocal talents. The tenor lead was designed for Rubini, and there are substantial arias and duets for the role to attract many great tenors.
The traditional approach to La Sonnambula was to simply play up the idealized, "in a land far far away" part of the libretto and let the singers sing. In 2009 director Mary Zimmerman had another idea. She decided to move the village with the castle, church, and priest into a Soho rehearsal loft. "Amina" and "Elvino" are singers who are playing Amina and Elvino in a planned performance of La Sonnambula. I think the intent was to add some much-needed humor to the work. Amina enters the stage chatting on her cell phone and she sings her opening aria, "Come per me sereno" while trying on a variety of wigs. The "shocking" finale of Act One in which Amina is, as I said, found in the presence of a man not her fiance (in the Zimmerman production, Count Rodolfo is still Count Rodolfo and he still demands a castle) has the entire cast and crew tearing up the joint. Score sheets are torn and thrown all over the room, tables are turned, and a bed is spun round and round. Lisa, Amina's rival, is a stage manager determined to sabotage Amina.
The only issue was ... it wasn't funny. It was just confusing, distracting, and silly. The constant stage business made the singers look like those hapless teachers who are trying to teach while some boys throw spitballs in the background. Casting was also off. Natalie Dessay was on the cusp of a vocal crisis that left her sidelined for a year. Juan Diego Florez talked openly about how he didn't like the production, and it showed. On opening night Zimmerman was so viciously booed that the cast stood around as awkwardly as if they'd just walked in on their parents having sex. A youtube video exists of the unfortunate event:
For the revival this year the Met did almost no advance publicity. The ever-reliable Diana Damrau was making her debut in the role but the Met didn't advertise this. The exciting Mexican tenor Javier Camarena was Elvino, and the Met also did practically no promotions for him. It's as if they wanted this to go away.
Yet last night's La Sonnambula turned out to be one of the most joyous, charming nights of the opera I can remember in a long time. First of all the most egregious stage business has been removed and some of the dramaturgy actually is funny now, like when Damrau tries on a wig, it looks awful, she stares at the audience for a moment, like "I know, I look like shit." And it's a strange thing -- if Diana Damrau were starring in a traditional Sonnambula, I can almost picture the complaints. She's too hearty, too vivacious, doesn't look innocent enough, voice doesn't have the requisite delicacy and vulnerability. But in this production, Diana Damrau is simply asked to play ... well, she's asked to play herself. And Diana Damrau playing Diana Damrau is almost impossible to dislike. She's funny. She's charming. She can dance. She can SING! And she can do cartwheels while singing!!! And so a production that was designed for Natalie Dessay ended up being a not-so-great vehicle for Dessay but the perfect vehicle for Damrau.
This applied to her singing as well. In a traditional production, the more vulnerable, melancholy timbres of, say, Maria Callas, Renata Scotto or Natalie Dessay would be preferable, as would their more romantic style of singing -- those rustling downward trills, the impeccable legato. Damrau has a kind of straight, sharp attack on the music, and a timbre that's bright but a bit monochromatic. She also has a harder time singing the long ascending and descending scales with perfect legato -- she's prone to snatch a breath here and there. Her trill is more like a Caballe flutter. But as I said, in a production where she's not really Amina, she's just a singer, we can marvel at her brilliant E-flats, her creative ornamentations, her impressive staccati, her homage to Callas when she does the chromatic ascent to and from descent an E flat in between verses of "Ah non giunge," and most of all, at her boundless energy and good-natured charm. "Ah non credea mirarti" was maybe not her best moment. Her voice doesn't really float, and it's not ethereal. But when she started dancing while singing "Ah non giunge" while throwing every vocal trick in the book, the usually somnolent weeknight Met audience started dancing in their seats along with her. She was pelted with bouquets during her curtain calls.
Damrau was helped by a wonderful Elvino. Javier Camarena has been a regular house tenor of sorts in Zurich for years, putting him in a long line of tenors who sang regularly in Zurich before the bigger international houses started noticing them. Piotr Beczala. Jonas Kaufmann. Vittorio Grigolo. Camarena's voice is a tenore di grazia, but it doesn't have that reedy, nasal sound of similar tenors. It's warm, bright, and his high notes don't just have ping, they have squillo. His voice goes all the way up to a high D in alt. "Ah! perche non posso odiarti" received a screaming ovation. Camarena doesn't have the extreme note precision of Florez, and sometimes you heard an aspirate or two, but the voice is sweeter and his characterization is more specific. Florez looked massively bored. Camarena played Elvino as a hothead -- in other words, a tenor! There was more genuine rapport between Damrau and Camarena. Their duets "Prendi, l'anel del tono" and "Son geloso" were sweet and capped by a big, endearing bear hug.
The rest of the cast was less impressive. Conductor Marco Armiliato has the most irritating habit of ending his musical phrases just a tad AFTER the singers have stopped singing. It's like if Abraham Lincoln was reciting the Gettysburg address and there was a guy behind him who followed it up with, "Um, yeah." The finale to Act One "D'un pensiero" had major coordination problems between the pit, the chorus, and the singers. Rachelle Durkin (Lisa) I remember as a charming Norina who stepped in for Anna Netrebko during the last run of Don Pasquales. It's depressing how much her voice has deteriorated in a few short years -- it's now shrill and glassy and she screams rather than sings. Michele Pertusi (Count Rodolfo) sounded under the weather, like he was marking parts of the score. Elizabeth Bishop (Teresa) was a bright spot among the supporting cast.
These are minor complaints. This Sonnambula is the sleeper hit of the Met season.