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Energetic and convincing: Damrau and Camarena in the Met's Sonnambula revival
© Johan Elbers 2014
Five years ago, Mary Zimmerman's Metropolitan Opera production of La Sonnambula was booed; now it seems harmless, though still thought-provoking, with the superb Diana Damrau and breakout star tenor Javier Camarena spearheading a detailed, energetic and convincing performance (seen Mar. 14), in spite of Marco Armiliato's unsteady leadership. In place of the tight-knit Swiss village of the original, there's an opera company rehearsing Bellini's semi-serious opera, and the two lead singers (Amina and Elvino) get engaged in front of a cast and crew who are just as nosy as the cowherd down the Alpine slope.
Daniel Ostling's set faithfully recreates a downtown rehearsal space, where theater and reality, performance and subconscious merge in Zimmerman's intriguing concept. It's fun to see individual characterizations from the excellent Met chorus in backstage mode as the simple story gets a fresh boost (with a huge wall clock and T. J. Gerckens's masterful lighting tracing the workday), but many of the real-life parallels don't work, and the manic paper-tearing fit that ends Act I remains exasperating.
In Zimmerman's production, the "Count" of the village is a veteran actor working with a B-level troupe and has to sleep in the rehearsal room, where the chorus, on a 7 A.M. rehearsal call (clearly a non-union gig), discovers Amina in his bed, provoking the jealous Elvino to call off the wedding. When Amina later sleepwalks in front of the entire cast and is seen through the loft windows out on a ledge, all is forgiven, and Zimmerman's adorably kitschy finale gives off a fake showbiz smile that reflects Bellini's sudden happy ending. After all the squabbling, misunderstandings and psychological probing of the rehearsal period, the chorus, in dirndls and lederhosen, stands in straight lines while Damrau tosses off coloratura and cartwheels. It's almost as if Zimmerman were saying, "Did you want an entire evening of that?"
Complementing her nimble physicality, Damrau's singing is both sturdy and graceful, and she invests the sensitive Amina with a feisty charm, donning a rehearsal skirt, testing her new shoes with dance moves, and rejecting a shepherdess wig with a toss of her own blond ponytail. Her first sleepwalking entrance is down one of the Met's central aisles, a stunning effect in its vocal and theatrical vulnerability. But the real coup is Damrau's shimmering, fluid, achingly beautiful sound as she paints Amina's despair in the wistful "Ah! non credea mirarti" from a plank hovering over the orchestra pit.
After his impressive 2011 house debut in Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Camarena is finally back, and one can only hope the Met has already snatched up his datebook. Here's a bold and fiery singer, with high notes to burn and a huge dynamic range he's not afraid to employ. "Tutto è sciolto," which earned the night's largest ovation, showed the Mexican tenor's winning and earnest delivery, with well-employed pianissimos and a genuine Italianate way of using words to sculpt the vocal line. And the pairing with Damrau was delicious, as they matched cadenzas, flexibility, expression and breath control, especially in the reconciliation duet "Son geloso del zefiro errante."
Michele Pertusi's dark timbre and suave phrasing highlighted the tender and protective side of the powerful Count Rodolfo, with an intriguing quiet presence.
Soprano Rachelle Durkin brought a high-strung gawkiness to the role of the hostess Lisa (here the company's stage manager), but it took her much of Act I to overcome shrill and unsteady singing. Jordan Bisch was suitably forlorn as her suitor Alessio, and Elizabeth Bishop's dramatically sure Teresa sounded richly resonant.
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