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On the Booing of La Sonnambula

On opening night of new productions at the Metropolitan Opera, the production team traditionally takes a bow, and it’s not unusual for the audience to give them a mixed reception. Opera fans have strong opinions on staging, and the conservative Met audience has little tolerance for anything other than extravagant realism. But on March 3, the negative reception that awaited the director Mary Zimmerman and her production team, responsible for the new production of Vincenzo Bellini’s La Sonnambula, was of a different order altogether. A sea of angry, vitriolic “boos” filled the house, and, in the days that followed, the negative response continued on the blogs and chat boards in most of the critical notices. Audiences seemed not just disappointed with the production, which relocated the piece from an Alpine village to a modern rehearsal room, but viscerally upset—furious, even. Zimmerman received most of the blame, but the evening’s star, French soprano Natalie Dessay, seen as partly responsible for the production’s concept, was also singled out for opprobrium.

Boos at the Metropolitan Opera are nothing new, especially for stylized stagings. Even popular successes like Julie Taymor’s Zauberflöte and Anthony Minghella’s Madama Butterfly received a smattering of mixed responses from opening night audiences suspicious of directorial liberties. New York is slightly more open to modern approaches to contemporary operas; recent non-traditional productions of John Adams’ Doctor Atomic and Philip Glass’s Satyagraha were well received. But match an avant-garde production with a traditional nineteenth-century work, and the response is almost guaranteed to be negative, never more so in my experience than in the response to this Sonnambula.

As someone who found the production deeply flawed, but not at all worthy of contempt, I found myself puzzled and ultimately depressed by the response, which came not just from the usual malcontents, but also from people whom I know to be intelligent and engaged fans. There seemed to be a tidal wave of rage that I had not felt since the debut of the Robert Wilson Lohengrin over ten years ago (a production that has since become a classic of the Met repertory, as often happens with productions that are initially reviled). What was behind this response? How could a second-tier opera become the crucible for this public display of animosity?

La Sonnambula is a work that has not entered the consciousness of the general opera-going public in the manner of its contemporaries like Lucia di Lammermoor, Il Barbiere di Siviglia and Norma, Bellini’s most famous work. The Met had not performed the piece since 1972, and, frankly, few were clamoring for it. The story concerns Amina (Dessay), a Swiss village girl, engaged to fellow villager Elvino (Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez). All is happy in their pastoral paradise until the arrival of a mysterious stranger, Count Rodolfo (the suave Michele Pertusi), whose admiration for Amina causes jealousy in Elvino. This is exacerbated when Amina is discovered in Rodolfo’s room at the local inn late at night. The misunderstanding is happily resolved when it becomes clear that Amina is an innocent sleepwalker, a somnambulist.

La Sonnambula is one of the bel canto operas, those early nineteenth-century Romantic works by Bellini, Rossini, Donizetti and their peers which place the emphasis on beautiful and virtuosic vocalism as opposed to naturalistic drama or symphonic musical development. Bellini composed Sonnambula toward the end of his brief life to a libretto by Felice Romani which was based on a ballet scenario by the prolific Eugène Scribe. The opera was specifically composed for two of the greatest singers of the century, soprano Giuditta Pasta and tenor Giovanni Battista Rubini, and has traditionally been seen as little more than a showcase for gorgeous, agile voices who can handle the long, flowing, rapturously beautiful melodic lines and the spectacular coloratura fireworks. The Met’s production was created especially for Dessay, a lyric soprano known for her electric stage presence and fearless vocalism, and for Flórez, a magnetic performer with spectacular high notes and astounding technique. It’s the kind of opera that you simply don’t put on unless you have two extraordinary singers who can do it justice.

Sonnambula also belongs to the rather obscure sub-genre of opera semi-seria (literally, half-serious). These drowsy, mostly forgotten works are essentially serious, but have happy endings. Their tone is gentle, pastoral. Because they are neither particularly dramatic nor particularly funny, but are instead just “sweet,” they are extremely challenging to pull off today when audiences expect either big laughs or big tears. The virtues of Sonnambula lie almost completely in the quality of its music and in the opportunities it provides to performers. Like much of the bel canto repertory, Sonnambula virtually disappeared from the world’s stages in the second half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, replaced by the more visceral, penetrating works of Verdi and Wagner and, later, by the blood-and-guts realism of verismo. It was not until the 1950s and the bel canto revival known as the riesumazione, pioneered by committed artists such as conductor Tullio Serafin and soprano Maria Callas, that Sonnambula returned to the stage, most famously in a legendary production at La Scala, Milan, in 1955. That staging, by the aristocratic film director Luchino Visconti, presented Callas at her absolute vocal peak and was conducted by none other than Leonard Bernstein, slumming in a genre that has rarely attracted the attention of major conductors.

Callas and her collaborators not only exhumed but also rehabilitated Sonnambula and its forgotten brethren. What had been seen as pretty but inconsequential works became downright profound, thanks to Callas’ ability to infuse every musical moment with shades of meaning and complexity. For example, in Amina’s opening aria, “Come per me sereno,” a sincere expression of contentment, Callas lightened her voice to convey the fragility of an innocent teenage girl; at the same time, she invested a word like “mai (never)” in the phrase “never has the face of nature smiled with such radiance” with an uncertain plangency that suggested an underlying sadness, an awareness of the transience of happiness. Thus was bel canto reconstituted for the modern world.

Interestingly, Visconti’s direction of the La Scala Sonnambula was an early incarnation of what is now called a “concept” approach. The director costumed Callas not in a traditional peasant dress but in a dazzling white gown and expensive jewelry. When Callas questioned this choice, Visconti famously responded, “You are Maria Callas playing a village girl, and don’t you forget it!” In other words, Callas was simultaneously playing Amina and also “the diva playing Amina.” The stylization extended to the female chorus, who were dressed as a corps de ballet, and to the lighting, which suggested a half-dreamed world. This spell was broken in the final five minutes when all the lights on stage and in the auditorium were brought up, as if to suggest that not only was Amina’s dream over, but that the opera itself had exited the world of illusion and was now existing concurrently with the modern audience. In Visconti’s concept, we see a surprising presaging of Zimmerman’s doubled world.

Mary Zimmerman, the Chicago-based director who won a Tony Award for directing Metamorphoses on Broadway, made her Met debut in 2007 with a decently received Lucia di Lammermoor (also with Dessay). The recipient of a MacArthur genius grant for her work with the Goodman and Lookingglass Theatre companies, she specializes in what one might term “storytelling theater,” creating onstage worlds in which the performers highlight the very act of conveying the story to the audience, utilizing narrative techniques such as direct address, song, stylized movement, metaphoric use of sets and props, and so forth. It’s a technique as old as the ancient bards, and Zimmerman, capitalizing on her experience as professor of Performance Studies at Northwestern University, draws on centuries of theatrical heritage, as well as an international array of influences, to create her work. For the Met’s Sonnambula, she relocated the story to a contemporary rehearsal room where a traditional production of Sonnambula is being fashioned by a modern opera company. The actors playing Amina and Elvino have the same relationship as the characters in the opera—romantically entangled and torn apart by misplaced jealousy—and the story essentially plays out simultaneously at both levels: the real world of the actors and the “story” world of the opera they are rehearsing.

What was the motivation behind Zimmerman’s decision to relocate the setting of the opera? In an interview in the Met’s annual program book, she provides some insight: “I wanted to find a way to present [the opera] that allows for the possibility that this story could be real and its characters full human beings,” she says. “The sleepwalker and the theatrical performer have something in common. Performers have a foot in two worlds. They find themselves like sleepwalkers on a stage, creating an imaginary world in which they are entirely immersed but which is, nonetheless, entirely imaginary. There is always in stage performers—and in the audience as well—a kind of double consciousness that I think mirrors the double consciousness of the walking dreamer.” Zimmerman finds an additional congruence between the setting of the opera and her new location: the rehearsal room is, for most theater artists, a utopian space, a place of happiness, exploration, and intimacy. Her production attempts to capture that sense of pleasure and to harness it as a metaphor for the idyllic Swiss village.

Apparently, when first contracted to direct the opera, Zimmerman had planned on a traditional approach. It was at the urging of Dessay, a gutsy performer who embraces challenging work and radical rethinkings, that Zimmerman moved away from mountains and dirndls. Dessay has performed the role before and is widely quoted as saying she doesn’t think a traditional production of Sonnambula could ever work. In a previous production I saw in Santa Fe, Dessay played Amina as a bookish, mentally unstable young woman, surrounded by Victorian grotesques. The plot was her feverish nightmare and the finale was staged not as a happy conclusion but as a terrified descent into waking madness. Zimmerman had directed Dessay in the Met’s Lucia di Lammermoor last season, and behind-the-scenes rumblings indicated a clash of wills in rehearsals for that opera, but the Sonnambula process was reportedly cordial.

Zimmerman and her designers, Daniel Ostling on sets, Mara Blumenfeld on costumes, and T. J. Gerckens on lights, created a spacious unit set that was a deliberate invocation of the renowned New York rehearsal space at 890 Broadway. The details were perfect, down to the stunningly realistic facade of the ABC Carpet building outside the windows. Ostling captured a uniquely urban beauty—that combination of soaring, golden-lit prewar windows, warm wooden floors, brazenly exposed air ducts and intricate metal fixtures that make New York’s precious loft spaces such inspiring places to live and work. The cast was dressed in modern, pitch-perfect street clothes, with Dessay (as the company’s diva) in slightly chicer mode. As the characters rehearsed the opera within the opera, they improvised with props, tried on different hats and wigs, awkwardly worked through complicated choreographic moves—all standard practice at any theatrical company. At various points, the rehearsal gave way to actual interactions between the modern characters and, ultimately, the opera’s crisis of jealousy and misunderstanding was played out as happening in real life and not just in the inset story.

The execution was by no means perfect. Zimmerman found it difficult to maintain a consistent tone and faltered on the thin line between affection and condescension. As early as 1964, Susan Sontag listed Bellini’s operas as exemplars of high camp, along with Flash Gordon comics and Tiffany lamps. The temptation to stylize, to aestheticize and to patronize the work is strong, and the lesson of Callas and Serafin—that within the silly prettiness lies a darkly beating heart—is easy to forget. In her essay “Notes on Camp,” Sontag says, “Camp is art that proposes itself seriously, but cannot be taken altogether seriously because it is ‘too much.’” Zimmerman and Dessay made a few critical missteps that were indeed “too much.” As Amina entered sleepwalking in the final scene, she scrawled the word “Aria” on the rehearsal blackboard, a self-conscious gag that frustratingly undercut the intensely serious staging of “Ah! non credea mirarti” that followed. (After opening night, Dessay instead wrote “Elvino,” a less precious choice.) This aria, Bellini’s masterpiece, was the music Chopin asked to hear on his deathbed and Zimmerman had Dessay sing it on a thin platform that extended over the orchestra pit, a stunning image suggestive of both the precarious emotional situation and the out-of-body experience of the sleepwalker; Dessay looked like she was floating in space in front of the stage, a true coup de théâtre. In the finale that followed, when the awakened Amina sings the joyful “Ah! non giunge,” the rehearsal room set disappeared as the chorus entered in traditional Swiss costumes and performed the last five minutes of the opera just as they would appear in the actual production that the characters were rehearsing (not unlike the finale of A Chorus Line where the audience is treated to the fully costumed and staged “One!”). In this moment, another potential theatrical coup, Dessay’s best instincts deserted her and, instead of playing it straight, she camped it up, giving us a cutesy, ditsy Amina, as if implying that the Sonnambula being rehearsed would be a terrible, idiotic staging. The condescension left a bad taste in the mouth and fueled the mistaken notion that Zimmerman and Dessay felt contempt for the opera (as opposed to certain styles of staging).

Nevertheless, to my mind there was no question that, despite these isolated missteps, Zimmerman and her team were attempting a serious and respectful reading of the opera. Most prominently, this production reveled in a Pirandellian examination of the relationship between an artist and his roles. The doubled layers incisively indicated how an actor can get lost in a role and how art can in some cases heal and in others destroy the artist. The actor playing “Elvino” and the actress playing “Amina” conducted their courtship both through the situations they rehearsed and (in a beautifully staged and acted account of the duet “Son geloso del zefiro errante”) in real life. The gravitational pull of the opera’s narrative crisis infected their relationship and then, ultimately, provided the means of reconciliation. Zimmerman and company also examined the changing notion of community, exploring the intriguing discontinuity between how the chorus is treated in the nineteenth-century text and in the twenty-first-century setting. The uniformity and omnipresence of the opera’s villagers became fragmented into individuality and a more modulated presence in the rehearsal room setting. Zimmerman’s focus on the congruity between actors and sleepwalkers also bore fruit in the staging. Dessay made her first sleepwalking entrance down a central aisle in the Met’s auditorium, foregrounding the simultaneously real and symbolic nature of her act, existing at once in the actual world of the auditorium and the other-world of the narrative.

All of those ideas gave my companions and me much to discuss following the performance. Isn’t that an admirable outcome of a night at the theater? For the simple fact that the production alternately engaged, frustrated, enlightened, and intrigued me, I felt I owed Zimmerman and her team applause and not contempt. Why, then, the vitriolic response from the audience? A cynical, lazy staging in which the director and/or star was clearly in it for the bucks and didn’t bother to expend any effort or thought might—just maybe—deserve an angry reaction from the audience. But this Sonnambula was clearly not in any way a case of a cynical or lazy approach. One might easily disagree with the concept, or find some of the execution problematic, but it’s impossible to say the production team weren’t trying to do something new and interesting and that they hadn’t dedicated a great deal of brain power to the execution. The detail in the production alone, from design to blocking, was at a level virtually never seen at the Met.

La Sonnambula is in many ways a difficult piece to love. Even the ravishing music does not always appeal to contemporary taste. There are virtually no up-tempo numbers, and the first fifty minutes of “I’m so happy,” languidly stated over and over, can try the patience. The conductor of the Met’s production, Evelino Pidò, did not help matters with his lackadaisical approach; rather than leading the singers and driving the momentum, he consistently let the tension sag. The piece has almost no internal musical energy; in comparison, Lucia di Lammermoor, which was written only four years later, seems like a combustion engine. Perhaps for this reason, the opera’s fans (and I count myself a rabid one) are ultra-passionate and perhaps a little touchy about it. Its very challenges make it all the more fragile and therefore all the more lovable to its partisans.

There is a phenomenon known as “epistemological panic,” in which people who are faced with something they don’t understand react not with curiosity and a desire to learn more but rather with fear and defensiveness. It’s a universal phenomenon and there isn’t a person on earth who hasn’t experienced it. When the process of epistemology, in the sense of “knowing and understanding” or “making sense of data” is disrupted, the psyche experiences a break and the mind throws up a wall: “they must not be explaining this correctly” or “that’s not what I was taught” or “that’s just stupid.” If you’re semi-enlightened, you step away from that wall, open your mind to the new thought, and accept or reject it. But succumbing to the panic, a fear-based response, is all too easy. You see it in religious fundamentalists who can’t accept something outside their epistemological boundary as circumscribed by their spiritual teachings. It’s a major factor in our country’s response to the terror threat, which comes from people whom we can’t place epistemologically—whose “knowing and understanding” seem unknowable and thus frightening to us. I can’t help but think that many (though certainly not all) of the responses to this production of Sonnambula are due to epistemological panic.


“Knowing and understanding” this production can be challenging. Updatings in general, while often finding marvelous parallels between the world of the text and the modern setting, will always trade in discontinuity to a certain extent. The fit will never be perfect. Why is Elvino, a modern man, so concerned about his girlfriend’s purity? Who is the “Count” and why is he spending the night? Is the stage manager running an illicit Bed & Breakfast? Why does the sleepwalking Amina show up there? Does she live next door? The only way to get past such questions is to acknowledge them as irrelevant, not to worry that not everything makes sense, to remove “consistency” and “coherency” as absolute requirements in a theatrical experience (a removal that most of the other arts happily accomplished eighty years ago). Audiences should cut themselves some slack when it comes to “understanding” what’s happening on stage. Not getting the concept right away—not comprehending why something is being staged in a certain way—is neither a shame nor a crime. When the potential threat of discontinuity disappears or becomes irrelevant, so does the response of panic and anger.

Part of the negative response to Dessay herself may come from the fact that her voice has changed in recent years. She burst onto the scene in the 1990s as a high-wire daredevil, hitting high Es and Fs with astounding ease and sailing through coloratura showcase roles like Olympia and Zerbinetta with carefree abandon and wonderful humor. A vocal crisis intervened, and she retreated from the stage for a year, returning with her high notes and technique intact, but with a voice that had lost a great deal of its luster. She’s still a peerless stage animal, and the voice projects superbly in the house, but her tone has become glassy and brittle. She has also gravitated to more serious roles (such as Amina and Lucia) where technique is not enough and beautiful vocalism becomes essential and, in the process, she’s chipped away at the unanimous acclaim that used to greet her work. In fact, in the Met’s Sonnambula, most of the acclaim went to Flórez who has become a Met favorite thanks to his dazzling flexibility and endless range. While I find his tone a bit nasal and buzzy for my taste, I’m grateful for his artistry and recognize that he’s a unique talent.

My dismay at the response to this production was not directed at people who simply didn’t like it. I understand and probably agree with some of their feelings. If one is open to new ideas in opera production, and Zimmerman’s Sonnambula just didn’t work for you, then fine. But the intemperate and disturbingly violent response indicated something much more than dislike. There was anti-intellectualism in the angry outcries against elitism. There was certainly a whiff of misogyny in the evisceration of Zimmerman and Dessay. And there was a great deal of xenophobia in the claim that this production was an incursion of “Eurotrash” in the hallowed halls of the Met. European opera production is unquestionably more radical than in America. The catchall term of Regie (or Director’s) opera encompasses everything from the severe minimalism of Robert Wilson to the political carnival of Harry Kupfer to the goofy provocations of Calixto Bieito. In Europe, Regie is the norm, especially in Germany, and many Americans live in fear of it. This fear causes a knee-jerk reaction from much of the Met audience: an automatic revulsion when the opera doesn’t look like their Platonic ideal of what a Met production should be. (Context is all: If this production had been staged at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, it would have been the hit of the season.)

The problem is that unless artists are able to strive at something new, the art form will never progress in any meaningful or interesting way. The essence of artistic endeavor is taking chances, and that means that not every attempt will work for everyone. If the Met turns into an unsafe environment, where artists feel that if they fail they will be attacked by the audience and vilified by the press, then it won’t just be Zimmerman and Dessay who will desert the Met, but all artists of interest and value. For that reason, I found the response not just dismaying, but chilling. What are the booers so afraid of? That somehow a new approach to a classic piece will prevent any future traditional productions of this or any other opera at the Met? That somewhere the composer is feeling pain because his beloved work is being “desecrated”? That we’ll have to think in a new way about a piece we made up our minds about thirty years ago?

La Sonnambula works beautifully on its own luxuriously dreamy musical terms. But that doesn’t mean we should not be open to an intellectual or avant-garde approach to its staging. I found Zimmerman’s production, which contrasted gorgeous, heavenly music with a workaday, modern space, not a desecration but its exact opposite: a sanctification, a testament to the fact that grace and beauty can occur in the most ordinary, contemporary settings. Sonnambula, when taken seriously, should convey the expression of passion and jealousy, obsession and joy. Why is a New York rehearsal room filled with Gap-clad actors less appropriate a setting for such displays than a mountaintop? Even modern, big-city dwellers still go through the same misunderstandings that can feel cataclysmic at the time and silly in retrospect—precisely as Bellini delineated them almost 200 years ago.

Opera production is not an either/or proposition. One can love the Franco Zeffirelli extravaganzas (and I do, I really do) and also be intrigued by a radical concept. For that reason, I’m happy to accept the nine out of ten opera productions at the Met that are highly traditional. So when that one-out-of-ten non-traditional production comes along, it seems unwarranted that the enraged members of the audience feel they have to ruin the performance and chastise and punish the artists. In a democratic society, the needs of the minority (in this case, the intellectuals) should be met on occasion. If every production tried to appeal to the widest possible audience, we’d have nothing but lowest-common-denominator theater, and who wants that?