Sunday, March 08, 2009

The Met Audience: Live! ...and booing!

We have been hearing great things about the singing, but ghastly reports abnout the production from several friends who have attended the new production of La Sonnambula at the Metropolitan Opera this past week. So we were interested to see what Sam Shirakawa might have to say about Friday evening's performance:

Metropolitan Opera
6 March 2009

Well, whaddaya know! The audience at the Metropolitan Opera can boo badness as boisterously as baseball fans berating Barry Bonds.

Such was the widely reported spectacle performed by the crowd attending the March 3d premiere of Mary Zimmerman’s ill-conceived production of Bellini’s La Sonnambula. At the second performance, which I attended, the audience made its displeasure known as the house lights came up for the intermission. Rarely have I heard such hissing and hooting at a Met performance since Ponnelle lifted the skirt on his short-lived Dutchman in 1979.

If you’ve sought out what you’re reading now, you probably already know the details of what elicited the discontent. Mary Dearest has shifted the opera’s locale from the Swiss Alps of the early 19th century to a present-day rehearsal loft -- probably somewhere in Manhattan’s Cast Iron District or Soho -- where a cast, dressed mostly in modern garb, is walking through what appears to be a traditional 19th century production of Sonnambula. Its loose plot involves the impending marriage of a lovely village lassie to her simple boyfriend. Here’s the twist Mary Dearest added to the plot: The lead singers happen to have the same names as the characters they are playing, and they too are romantically involved. Tah Dah! Parallel universe. Sort of. Get it?

Frankly, no.

If the original plot were tighter, the conceit might work. But the libretto as written by Felice Romani (based on a drama by Eugene Scribe) is so implausible from the get-go, that it can hardly bear the imposition of an added synthetic narrative. It’s also hard to know at what junctures the two plot lines diverge or dovetail. Maybe we’re not meant to. Waking, sleeping, dreaming, sleepwalking and so on. Get it?

No again.

As impatience sets in, you begin to suspect that the present-day plot element is simply a cynical ploy to save gargantuan costs for period costumes and scenery. As distraction creeps in, you begin to speculate upon the vast number of operas, operettas and musicals that could be similarly mounted.

So... here's my proposal for the Met management, that would surely ameliorate the company’s current financial crisis: Fit EVERY upcoming new production into the rehearsal room framework posited by Mary Dearest’s concept. With its huge parquet flooring, Daniel Ostling’s flexible unit set would also function as a sounding board to throw the voices out into the house -- much like the tall slabs of scenery for the Met’s new Trovatore. And wouldn’t ya know, there’s even a protracted package-throwing sequence, whose blocking could be cloned for the pillow fight that closes Meistersinger’s second act!

But let’s think out of the box for a moment: How about chucking Zeffirelli’s much-too elaborate Boheme for a stripped down rehearsal version, in which Rudolfo and Mimi fornicate during their love duet? What about a rehearsal version of Carmen-as-Flashback, in which Don José murders his real-life live-in girl friend during the prelude to the first act rather than at the opera’s final moments? But at THIS rehearsal, he uses a real knife. Stop me! Pleeeez!

So how was the performance otherwise, Mrs. Lincoln?

Pretty cruddy, actually, she might aptly reply.

With the exception of the Teflon Tenor, of course.

Juan Diego Florez seems indestructible. In fact, he just keeps getting better and more refined. He’s honed that distinctive burr that gooses the ears, and he’s drained his top notes of that adenoidal honk that’s been giving some of his wussier critics dyspepsia. Standing, sitting, or reclining imperturbably in the midst of the imbecilities being perpetrated around him, Florez simply waits his turn to stand and deliver what opera has always been about in the first place: Great singing. He's really got the Whole Package, folks.

On Natalie Dessay, I run hot and cold. I run hot when she crawls along a table top trilling her brains out. Golly gee! Can that gal multi-task! But I run cold when she lunges at high notes and misses. On her good nights, Dessay too embodies the Whole Package, but its wrapping is beginning to fray at the creases. This becomes increasingly apparent, when she mounts a trajectory that propels her gradually over the orchestra pit, where she sings a generally affecting “Ah, non credea.” The altered ambience into which she is thrust, however, is not kind.

Having intended to become a dancer, Dessay moves as though blessed by Terpsichore herself, but her occasional reversions to that cutesy wind-up doll shtick from last season’s La Fille du Regiment are turning old fast.

Michele Pertusi is a sonorous Count Rodolfo. Jennifer Black is serviceable as Lisa. Jane Bunnell looks too young to be convincing as Dessay’s foster mother.

The less obvious culprits behind the cruddiness of this woeful production, though, are conductor Evelino Pido and his sluggish tempi. It’s hard to tell what he’s driving at -- rapture? lyricism? Whatever the aim, the end-effect is worthy of no less than the goddess Dulness in The Dunciad.

And finally, the ventilators in the lighting eyrie above the Family Circle are still droning too loudly -- not nearly as bad as before, but still loud enough to prevent you from hearing Mme. Dessay essay a pianissimo. Since seats for this location are soon going to cost 33 percent more, surely Mr. Gelb can assign part of this obscene increase to remedy the problem once and for all.

©Sam H. Shirakawa

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