Thursday, March 05, 2009

Can't quite let it go yet

Funny how, when you're approximately the only person that liked something, you feel like its defender and champion even if you liked it in a decidedly tepid way.

Here's what I think happened, though I didn't come up with this entirely on my own: people read/heard/read about/heard about Dessay's dismissive remarks about Sonnambula and it colored their reaction to the entire piece, made them see satire and condescension where, by and large, it wasn't there (even if what was there wasn't exactly beauty or genius.) Central to this idea, for me, is the now much bemoaned piece of business in which Dessay makes her entrance to that enchanting orchestral bit just before singing "Ah, se una volta sola..." and walks up to the board on which has been written "Village Square" and all that, and dreamily writes "ARIA" in big letters.

Judging by the reaction, people find this to be a gigantic "fuck you" to Bellini, to the audience, to the stagehands, to Jesus, and pretty much everyone else. I kind of understand why, especially when I reach back and think of Mark Morris' kitschy-cute biz for Amor in his Orfeo, but I just think this reaction is mostly about things external to the moment. When I saw it, before the angry outpouring, I found it to be gently funny, albeit basically of a piece with the shallow self-referentiality that even I concede makes the Concept ultimately unworkable.

There is only one truly derisive gesture in the piece (coupled with one absolutely inexplicable one, the tearing of the scores and that whole hoedown before the first curtain) which is the aggressively dopey Swissing it up for "Ah, non giunge." Perhaps people are right to feel poked in the eye by that one. Since I don't love the opera itself, I found it funny, but this is (a little to my surprise, I'll admit) a minority opinion.

Listen, our forgiveness of ridiculous libretti is, I think, directly proportional to our love for the music. I guess I might get indignant about a production that seemed to mock La Gioconda even though it's asking for it. I pissed off a friend by calling Sonnambula nonsense: it's no more nonsensical than plenty of other things. I've just never found the music sufficiently wonderful to transport me to that land of suspended disbelief we ideally inhabit in the opera house when we need to.

The reaction at the prima still feels bitter and puritanical to me, but only in tenor and volume; I'm willing to grant that Ms. Zimmerman took a potshot at her audience (and by this I mean the people she should have considered her audience--the people who love the opera she chose to conceptualize) with the sarcastic folk-dancing, even if it felt more like a gentle nudge to me.


Anonymous said...

Several thoughts about this:
Firs of all, I have nothing against Dessay, but she's starting to go on my nerves a bit with all this hifalutin art talk. If she's so hellbent on playing intellingent characters, why is she an opera singer? Intelligence has never been the most sallient characteristic of almost any opera heroine.
Opinions about the opera itself seem beside the point...dirndl or no dirndl, whatever...I say potato you say potahto, but regarding the production and the production team's (stated) apparent lack of faith in it's validity for modern day audiences, why are they doing this work at all? I'm sure millions of dollars and many many hours of work were put into this production. That seems like a lot of money and effort for something you're just going to blow off in the end. I mean, there are starving children in the world. Either produce something you care about or donate the money to a worthy cause...or move over and give the job to someone who wants it (Zimmerman has said that she was "this close" to withdrawing from the production).
If you are going to send something up, at least do it in style...a la Charles Ludlam or something like that.

Maury D'annato said...

Anonymous: I'm not sure I agree about all this. I assume Dessay's objection is not to playing unintelligent character but rather uninteresting ones. I don't think she complains about Zerbinetta, and one does not have the impression that Zerbinetta freelances part-time as a phenomenologist. She is, however, bewitching and complex.

Also I might leave room for artists to put on works they aren't certain about. Uncertainty, even skepticism can lead to exploration.

JSU said...

"If she's so hellbent on playing intellingent characters, why is she an opera singer?"

Because that's what people will pay to see her in.

As you may have noticed, she seems a bit resentful about this at times. Did her non-sung play thing happen yet? I wonder if she'll feel the same way after actually doing one.

Anonymous said...

I also feel bemused at having to defend a production I barely liked. But the anger at this event seems crazily out of proportion.

Two things might account for some of the frothing vitriol:

1 - this show finally brought home to certain people that the Zeffirelli era at the Met is done, gone, and never coming back; that all future productions will be more like Sonnambula than like the Boheme.

2 - in several comments - especially at - people go on about this assault on the "innocence" of Amina.

Which just makes me laugh. You wouldn't think virtue such a high priority for some commenters considering how they typically express their opinions.

-- RDaggle

Anonymous said...


I think you may be right about people having preconceived ideas before even going into this - at least I think that's what you said.

And to the person who mentioned starving children? I think feeding starving children is equally, or perhaps more important than producing opera. But I think we need both and there is room for both.

What I find most astounding is the people who have condemned this production who haven't seen it.

I'm much more interested in seeing it now after all this hullaballoo (sp?) than I was before.


Anonymous said...

I haven't seen the production either, but from what I hear and read, it sounds as though Zimmerman did the work in spite of having no conviction in it. A designer/director/performer can't do that and get away with it because the audience always knows if there's no commitment and, in the case of design, it shows. You can't be simultaneously committed and unfocussed in theatre. If Zimmerman was "this close" to not doing the production, she should have bowed out and let someone who believed in some important aspect of the work take the contract. Offhand isn't experimental -- it's lazy and it's disrespectful of the composer, the singers, the orchestra, and the audience.

Anonymous said...

Part of the reason I laughed at "ARIA" was that it mocked the convention of the dramatic entrance with aria.

There are those who think the whole enterprise of opera is camp. That the very act of a character standing in place and singing with an 80 piece orchestra backing him/her up is just silly. It makes no sense. One must willfully suspend disbelief in all theatrical productions, but, in opera, it is harder than in a straight play.

Watching this production reminded me of watching a drag show. Campy, yes. Clever, yes. Witty, yes. But it left my soul wanting more. Something authentic.

In many ways, this is the PERFECT production for the radio. That way, you don't have to see it. Zimmerman has succeded where many before her have failed - by turing the theatrical portion of the story into nonsense, the only thing she presents authentically is the music. It would have been much cheaper to do a concert version of the opera to achieve this effect.


Maury D'annato said...

Yes to many points. There are a lot of things I'd cut to feed starving children (oh, or hell, starving adults, WON'T SOMEBODY PLEASE THINK OF THE ADULTS?) before opera, like, y'know, funding for stadia, for one thing. And yes, the worst is reading furor over this production from people who haven't seen it.

Maury D'annato said...

Pete, not to dismiss your point, but the thing is, perhaps we ought to judge the production by the production. There may be plenty of productions about which the director or someone was ambivalent about it; we usually don't know this. I think there's some degree of projection in saying that Zimmerman's ambivalence shows in the work.

Maury D'annato said...

Joe: I'm glad to have seen that set. I think it was beautiful and bracing. And I'm glad to have seen Lisa pull Amina in from a snowy ledge, and a couple of other things. And if it didn't move me deeply, well, it's just a decent instead of an extraordinary night at the Met. It's not every night you have your heart stomped on by what's going on up there, and this is fine.

Quoth the Maven said...

Maury--Don't you think it's notable that the only people willing to make a case for the Zimmerman-Dessay Sonnambula are people who don't like the opera?

Perhaps there's a post-modern sensibility here that eludes me.

Anonymous said...

Message from Zimmerman's La Sonnambula: opera is pretty silly. Discuss.

I agree, the set was beautiful and bracing. I'd love to rehearse there. Or throw a party on that stage. Not sure I needed to see it and the opera La Sonnambula in the same evening.

I agree that Lisa pulling Amina off the ledge was a lovely moment. All the more painful then, to have that moment sabatoged by "ARIA".

I think that was a metaphor for Zimmerman's approach to the opera. Every once in a while, her better angels are capable of a lovely moment. Her better angels pull her off the ledge. Then she mocks it.

Listen, I don't disagree that the evening was fun. Indeed, it was South Park fun coupled with great singing. The two just don't go always together very easily. I was not a boo-er. I was a tepid applauder, mainly to keep the momentum rolling so I could applaud JDF again. Alas, that was not to be.

I can't help feeling that the talents of Dessay and Florez were wasted on this production. A production whose essence is camp and mockery is fine for lesser talents, because one doesn't expect much more from them.


Maury D'annato said...

Quoth: I'd think it was notable if my sample size were larger than about four or five. At the dress, reception was extremely warm and I don't think that was 3000+ people who hated La Sonnambula.

Quoth the Maven said...

Maury--You're being a bit disingenuous here. Your initial entry argued that MZ's approach was justified because the opera is, essentially, a piece of shit. So no matter what the sample size, I'm reacting to something I consider a specious argument.

Having seen it last night, I did encounter a few pleasant surprises. I thought the plank rolling out over the orch. pit was actually quite lovely, even poetic. Like you, I liked Lisa helping Amina in off of the ledge. And at this performance, thank God, ND didn't write "ARIA," just an inchoate scrawl. (I would assume that "ARIA" has been scrapped.)

One more pleasant surprise--the production concept was so muddled that by the second act, it had virtually disappeared. MZ's powers of theatrical invention here were waning--nobody was doing much of anything. Which meant that,until the putrid finale, you could just ignore the dopey construct, half-shut your eyea, and pretend that you were at a performance of Bellini's La sonnambula.

But that first act! Just tell me-- is the Count the bass who's been hired to sing the role of the Count? Is he some guy who shows up and decides to sleep on a cot in the rehearsal studio? Does everyone start tearing the studio apart 'cuz they're angry at him? At Amina? At having to do this opera? Here the problem isn't that MZ has imposed a concept; it's that she has no idea how to give that concept theatrical life. We don't know what we're seeing or who these characters are, which renders drama null (and there IS dramatic validity to Sonnambula, no matter what you might think). It's anti-musical and, paradoxically, anti-theatrical.

I'll admit, once you've read or heard the toxic comments of director and diva about the piece, it's hard to divorce their attitudes from the dud that they've come up with. Dessay is wonderfully gifted at carrying out bits of stage business--an enterprise which she, in her infinite non-lack of critical intelligence, calls "acting." MZ has dutifully delivered plenty of these. What they've both missed, through most of this production, is the opportunity to be emotionally expressive--i.e., the opportunity for drama. If this is "acting," I'll take the other stuff.

Quoth the Maven said...

Oh, and about that finale--the problem wasn't so much that it seemed sarcastic as that it was, like so much else, dramatically inept. And dramatically inept in the familiar MZ manner--that is, it undercut the musical moment along with its attendant meaning. And Dessay's observations about the problems of coordinating "acting" and "singing" were certainly confirmed here: the fussy, jokey staging prevented her from knocking our socks off with "Ah! non giunge"--and socks-knocked-off are clearly called for at this point, not just from a musical necessity, but from a dramatic one.

Maury D'annato said...

I am not, in point of fact, being disingenuous. Your question was not "don't you think it's notable that you are making the case for this production and don't like the opera?" It was, italics obviously mine, "Don't you think it's notable that the only people willing to make a case for the Zimmerman-Dessay Sonnambula are people who don't like the opera?" And that's not the case. Ask what you want me to answer or don't get haughty when I don't answer the question in your head.