In the final scene of Bellini's La Sonnambula, the heroine sleepwalks over a mill wheel in a Swiss village while singing an elaborate aria typical of a 19th-century mad scene. It's a great opportunity for a soprano to dazzle audiences with a display of vocal fireworks: but it's a bit of a stretch in terms of dramatic plausibility.
In this new production, there is no mill wheel. In fact, there is no Swiss village. "I felt that the opera could bear some additional complexity in terms of the staging," says Mary Zimmerman, the Tony Award-winning director whose production of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor opened the Met's 2007 _08 season. Working with her design team of Daniel Ostling (sets) and Mara Blumenfeld (costumes), Zimmerman sets the action in a modern-day rehearsal room, where a company of singers is rehearsing La Sonnambula.
Her conception mirrors the idea of sleepwalking in a strikingly original way. "The rehearsal room and the stage are places of willful suspension," the director explains, "a kind of waking dream... [Both] the sleepwalker and the theatrical performer have one foot in a very real material world and one foot in the imaginative world."
Crossing the lines between these two realms is French soprano Natalie Dessay as the title heroine. Having worked with Zimmerman on Lucia, she is also reunited with her co-star from last season's hit staging of La Fille du R_giment, the extraordinary Juan Diego Fl‹rez. Evelino Pid‹ conducts.
Dessay says that, for her, Bellini is harder to master than Donizetti. "You can't cheat with Bellini," she says. "In Donizetti, you can act, you can hide many things. But in Bellini there's nothing but the music and the purity of the line. You have to give your heart and soul directly." Her co-star agrees: "The role [of Elvino] is very demanding," Fl‹rez says, "with long and high legato phrases, sustained high notes and lots of soft singing."
It is the timelessness of Bellini's melodies that has assured his operas a permanent place in the repertoire. But according to Zimmerman (who returns next season to direct Rossini's Armida, another bel canto gem, starring Ren_e Fleming), the plot of La Sonnambula has universal overtones as well: "To me, it has something in common with those Shakespearean comedies where lovers go through an ordeal before they can marry. They love each other, but there are problems. So they run off into the woods and there are big arguments. By the time they come out of the woods they're both aware of each other as flawed people."
That's what Zimmerman sees as her goal: turning Bellini's characters into real people. "I wanted to present it in a way that allows for the possibility that this story could be real and its characters full human beings," she says. Creating a second reality in which the story can unfold attempts to achieve just that.
On another level, Zimmerman's conception places the action in a setting that is deeply familiar to the singers. "In rehearsals there are frequently moments of transcendence that are much rarer in actual performance," the director continues. "The singers are more relaxed and comfortable in themselves. They can give over to the music and to each other in a way that is really beautiful."
La Sonnambula also features Jennifer Black as Lisa, Jane Bunnell as Teresa and Michele Pertusi as Rodolfo.
There will be four more performances this season: March 21, March 24, March 28 and April 3. The March 21 matinee will be broadcast to movie screens around the globe as part of The Met: Live in HD series.
March 28 marks Juan Diego Florez's final performance. Tenor Barry Banks sings the role of Elvino on April 3.
For tickets and information, visit The Metropolitan Opera.
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All photos by Ken Howard for the Metropolitan Opera.