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07 April, 2014

La Sonnambula at the Met (twice).

La Sonnambula - Bellini - Saturday 29th March 2014 1pm matinée Met Opera
Amina - Diana Damrau
Elvino - Javier Camarena (Taylor Stayton last performance 1st April no fooling!)
Lisa - Rachelle Durkin
Count - Michele Perusi
c. Marco Armiliato
This welcome Met reprise of the Bellini rarity after 5 years was well worth the effort and with even better casting this time.  Happily it was not set in an idyllic Swiss village at least not until the final minutes.  Two entire acts of a traditional chocolate box production of this opera could risk descent into parody and farce, an unfortunate destination for such a masterpiece, always one of my favourite operas. 
A stroke of original brilliance put a sitzprobe rehearsal directly onto the big stage, warts and all.  Producer/director Mary Zimmerman along with set designer Daniel Ostling keep our attention by providing a private window onto back-stage, always a source of interest and mystery to opera fans. 
For those familiar with the theatre this production is close to the reality of operatic preparation.  It includes civilian clothes, diva antics, chorus movements, stage managers demands, wig fittings, costumes, shoes, personality clashes, etc.  Even coffee breaks are included.  Zimmerman is hardly the first to place plays within plays, yet here it is even better as she has added the New York factor.  Like Christmas, Jewish themes (Noah!), horses, water or children-on-stage, the Big Apple can also be a winning formula for popular productions. 
This is one of the genre of rescue operas, in this case the saving event is an entry in Websters Dictionary look up somnambulism if you dare - a great excuse for two-timing exposed.  Or burglary for that matter. 
This opera starts with an off stage chorus while the characters one by one gradually populate the vacant hall janitor, cleaners, stage manager, clip-board in hand, etc, etc.  Like Nozze measuring tape and chalk are used in the opening, if for different reasons.  Running late, the diva appears all clamour and glamour, cell phone in hand, only half concentrated on the job at hand.  Diana Damrau is one of the great singing actors of our time and this new role fits like a glove.  Humour, pathos, coloratura, beauty and even some calisthenics at the end (she did cartwheels on stage!).  Twice we heard her sing in the auditorium in front of the stage. 
For the Act I sleepwalking scene Ms Damrau entered by way of the main stalls aisle, walking in a morphistic state suitably spot-lit and into the hotel room of the embarrassed Count.  The second somnambulism commenced with a comatose Ms Damrau lurching along a narrow ledge in a snow storm outside the rehearsal room windows, presumably high above a New York street.  Not good for those with a fear of heights. 
Having been physically rescued by Lisa the final tour-de-force, Ah non credea mirati and its recitative were sung on a stage extension like a wide ‘diving board’ extending well over the orchestra.  The acoustics are noticeably different when the singer is in the Met auditorium itself.  Having an opera singer only two metres away as I did briefly in Act one is a serious auditory jolt! 
The joyous finale Ah non giunge was staggering, both vocally from Ms Damrau as well as from the chorus, dancers (now in Swiss costume) and clever staging.  Our soprano did two full acrobatic cartwheels during the short choral section before her final note - and then another in the curtain calls on the very last night. 
The tenor was the wild-card surprise of the evening for me.  Javier Camarena is the most beautiful voiced tenor I have heard since Luciano left us.  He has a fine tremolo with a smooth vocal line up and down the stave.  And his diminuendos were phenomenal too.  Every risk Mr Camarena took came off brilliantly, elegantly and tastefully.  His voice is quite unlike like Mr Florez but clearly just as capable (and I am a Florez fan). 
I was so impressed with this tenor that I attended the final performance with great expectations only to find that the season cover, Mr Taylor Stayton was taking the role as is the creditable practice at the Met.  Taller and perhaps more physically suited with this cast, American tenor Taylor Stayton, displayed a fine and supple voice for this difficult tessitura.  He commenced with a few slight bleats but any imperfections resolved and he received an enormous ovation.  However odious be Marlowes comparisons, my money is on Mexican Mr Camarena who will be hard to beat in this sort of repertoire.  He is rumoured to be replacing Mr Florez at the opening of Cenerentola in two weeks time.  We shall see. 
Michele Pertusi sang Vi raviso ravishingly as he also played the over-sexed old man in the most gentlemanly manner possible. 
Australian Rachelle Durkin played an excellent Lisa, jealous, bitter, conniving and finally getting her comeuppance.  Her steely voice, earnest stage presence and Bellinis brilliant score distinguish her from the soprano of the title.  Some of her rivalry stage actions were hilarious.  Other supporting roles were all very well acquitted including Aminas ubiquitous mother played by Elizabeth Bishop; Alessio, Lisas constant admirer, Jordan Bisch and the Notary played by Cantor Bernard Fitch, now a veteran of over 20 years at the Met. 
Marco Armiliato conducted the magnificent Met orchestra with confident style and tempi reminiscent of Richard Bonynge in his two classic recordings of this opera. 
A pleasure and a privilege to be in New York for such a marvellous treat (more travel notes below). 
Notes by Andrew Byrne .. London expert Dr Colin Brewers take on somnambulism in history.