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Monday, June 1, 2009


Zimmerman’s perverse take on the admittedly fragile drama of Bellini’s masterpiece. (Review by William Charlton-Perkins)

The Metropolitan Opera’s recent production of Bellini’s La Sonnambula, currently showing at Cinema Nouveau as the season’s latest High Definition transmission, has provoked a degree of critical controversy. This is due to director Mary Zimmermann’s seemingly willful eschewing of the work’s 19th century pastoral setting.

Instead of a Swiss ingénue’s sleepwalking causing consternation among her village community, not least with her betrothed, Elvino, who suspects her of double crossing him when she lands up in the wrong bed, we have a prima donna and her leading man running the gamut of the same storyline, but in the context of a modern-day rehearsal room.

It’s difficult to see what has been gained by substituting the fictional characters for an opera company preparing to play them onstage. That said, despite my initial pessimism gained from having absorbed so much online indignation, I found myself being won over to Zimmerman’s perverse take on the admittedly fragile drama of Bellini’s masterpiece.

Perhaps her concept works better filmed than it did when seen onstage from the Met’s vast auditorium. Here we have the advantage of facial close-ups, registering all the nuances and imported subtext Zimmerman’s dramatically gifted cast are required to bring to bear.

Natalie Dessay as Amina proves herself a consummate, highly intelligent actor, as does Juan Diego Florez, her Elvino. With their lithe physiques (the one initially trained as dancer, the other is reportedly a keen football-player), they need none of the suspension of disbelief so often demanded of opera audiences. And their visual allure aside, each sings divinely, bringing to their duets and arias all the artistry of great musicians as well as superb vocalists.

The other soloists, notably baritone Michele Pertusi, acquit themselves admirably too, both dramatically and musically, as do the chorus. All this tells in the production’s favour. Zimmerman’s undeniable gift of ensuring her players deliver true-to-life performances is fully evident, despite her seeming reluctance of allow the work to stand on its own.

Conductor Evelino Pido ensures Bellini’s far-flung melodies shimmer and soar for all their worth. Many of his tempi are on the slow side, allowing the melodic lines to breathe and expand luxuriously. Dessay crowns her performance with a heart-stopping account of Amina’s famous Act 2 lament, Ah! Non credea mirarti. The cast don traditional Swiss gear for the finale, colourfully transcending the rather drab rehearsal milieu, as Dessay launches into the score’s home strait with her joyous cabaletta, Ah! Non giunge uman pensiero.

Let the die-hards carp. The show’s ultimately well worth experiencing. – William Charlton-Perkins