So when I was studying some language or other, the professor, if you said something in a way that was viable but unlikely, would reach his right arm around the back of his head and grab his left ear [you should do this. it still won't necessarily make sense but I want to feel I have some influence in the world] and say "that's one way of saying it."
That's more or less my reaction to Mary Zimmerman's perfectly acceptable, occasionally charming new production of Vincenzo Bellini's perfectly acceptable, occasionally charming opera La Sonnambula. Because the re-imagining of La Sonnambula as...uh, let me see if I can get this right...mostly stuff that happens backstage during rehearsals for a production of La Sonnambula, except when it isn't quite that, leads one into a number of scenes that don't make sense unless we're suddenly exploring the liminal spaces between performance and reality, which frankly I just don't think we are. But...
Here's the thing. La Sonnambula is, but really, nonsense, and your two main options if you are saddled with the task of reviving it are 1) run with it, whoop it up, let the sweetly nostalgically ludicrous parts as opposed to the just plain dumb ones happen where they happen, give the core audience for La S the Swiss Miss commercial they are craving, or 2) fuck with it a little because maybe you'll hit some of the right notes, though if you're not perceived as having hit enough of them, you'll get violently boo'ed. Like seriously the only time I've ever heard anything like it was when Djokovic told 4,000 people "you don't like me anyway because I'm not Andy Roddick."*
Anyway, that's how it went down, because one thing I guess Mary Zimmerman or Peter Gelb might have thought of is that people who really think La Sonnambula is great are not usually the ones saying "did you catch that nutty new Hedda Gabler with the dwarves at BAM?" They are, however, the ones who tonight were heard to yell (in what might have devolved into violence) "Go back to Greenwich Village" in an argument right after the abbreviated curtain calls. This is the funniest insult ever for reasons I hope are obvious.
Now you will possibly exhume the corpse of Callas, the better to beat me with, and say if it's so goddamn stupid, Maur Bear*, why was it the best thing that ever happened on earth when Callas sang it? Which I won't answer because I wasn't born then, but my guess is it was a beacon of Kalageroupoliciousness in a sea of drivel, but I don't really know because not only was I not there, but I don't listen to it much. Actually, it's slightly interesting to imagine Callas in this production (I started to say "the instant offense" but that's just habit) because it never would have worked. On the basis of recordings and my own personal Callas mythology which may not be yours, how she put stuff like Amina over was some combination of a somewhat profound lack of critical intelligence that let her take such a story fairly seriously and the explosive creative genius we all agree on that rested upon an ability to somehow make any character** mythical in stature.
This is kind of the opposite of Dessay. Dessay goes at a character in a calculated way, and when the character isn't as smart as she is, as Jonathan von Wellsung points out, she sometimes makes great sport of, y'know, mocking the character a little. She and Mary Zimmerman must have ganged up on Amina that way (btw Amina is a fictional character and has no feelings, so please don't start feeling sorry for her even if I do have some old couch cushions sitting in my apartment because I can't put them on the curb when it's snowing. It's diff.) because the very last scene change, for "Ah, non giunge!" is absolutely in the same spirit. In it, Ms. Zimmerman seems to say: look, I could have given you Natalie Dessay in a fucking dirndl doing everything but yodeling, but I thought that would be dumb. Don't you agree? Because in fact the vaguely deliniated rehearsal-within-an-opera is over and JDF slaps on some Lederhosen and they all look like a bunch of idiots. I think this is what pissed people off to the point of almost violence. Well, this and my very favorite detail, which is what Dessay writes on the chalkboard just before "Ah! Non credea" which I won't spoil, but it made people laugh. Come on now--you know I'm pissy about overly laughy audiences, but I thought it was a funny-sweet moment and absolutely unoffensive.
The thing is it's all so harmless. It's the most superficial makeover imaginable, basically an excuse for modern dress, which I found vastly refreshing to see on the Met's stage. The only noteworthy sin of the production is that, as I think I started to say, the rehearsal/real life conceit makes almost everything having to do with count Rodolfo tough to fish any sense out of without excessive use of situational quotation marks. But you know me, I have trouble with the plot of Mary Tyler Moore episodes sometimes, so maybe I'm not the person to ask.
Certainly there are some other misfires sprinkled throughout. The stock diva stuff at Dessay's entrance, this and that. But there were also scattered lovelinesses, like the small redemption granted to Lisa at the last minute. I guess what I heard people reacting to most was the production making light of the material, and again, if you really love the material, that's kind of a fair charge. I really don't.
Oh but Dessay, right. Really I think in healthier voice here than in either Lucia or Fille, much as I liked her in both. She's obviously not doing as much vocal tearing-it-up as in Lucia, and it leaves her some room to breathe. The 93-year-old gent who sat beside us and who didn't love the updating but managed not to get hysterical about it said: she's perfect in this. And I think in fact she has become very good in this, despite a voice that isn't quite right for it. "Ah! Non credea" was very fine-grained but the line was firm, and though she busted loose a little more with her high notes at the dress, there was nothing to complain about. The ornamentation was, to my ear, inventive but idiomatic, the trill realish and the scales and arpeggios clean and unhesitant. Less than before I had the sense of hearing a too reedy voice trying to fill out music that wanted something fatter.
Our 93-year-old friend went on to say that he didn't think Florez was quite right for Bellini, better in purely flashy things where the fluidity and the top are all he needs, probably alluding to his indisputable success in Barbiere. He was probably basically right about this, too, though the second act aria and cabaletta were awfully convincing. He didn't express his thoughts, our pal, on Jane Bunnell but I was kind of happy to see her given a role that suited her nicely and not made to wear some dowdy wig.
Honestly, the rest of the singing I don't have strong opinions about, but I'm sure someone else will. Same goes for the conducting, though I was a little surprised at the total lack of rowdiness at the conductor's call. I think people were doing Lamaze exercises in preparation for their response to the production team.
By the way, once in a while it's good to pretend you're not an opera fan, for perspective, I mean not a hardcore one, and think: how would I be responding to this if I were not funny in the head? We did this accidentally by talking to this totally cute fellow in front of us during the chorus of disapproval. "Who are those people?" he asked, and we explained that they were the production team. He started laughing and eventually shouted "may god strike them all dead!' Yeah, exactly.
So basically if you love Sonnambula you shouldn't go see this because you're going to get your feelings hurt, and if you hate Sonnambula, you maybe shouldn't see it either because the production doesn't do sufficient violence to the material. It's sold out anyway, so either way you're in luck.
Next up: can't remember. It's late.
oh hey p.s. it's the next morning and I'm trying to do the "Am I a Hypocrite" test which is almost always worth doing. The case in point being my kvetching about Mark Morris', uh, fanciful reimagining of Gluck's Orfeo. I didn't boo, because I don't, but I probably shouldn't call people oversensitive when I felt pretty enraged at an assault on a thing I hold dear. So yes, looks like this is me being a hypocrite. Welp, that's the internet for ya, a forum for the parts of ourselves we would, in a perfect world, keep to ourselves.
*which was absolutely true, but not the sporting thing to point it out
**yeah, I grew a beard at the suggestion of my waistline
***except maybe Rosina. Ow. And that other Rossini role she recorded, Muffaletta or whatevs.