Regietheater Lite has arrived at the Metropolitan Opera. A new production of Vincenzo Bellini’s La Sonnambula thankfully lacks the sexual perversions, gratuitous despair, and adolescent political posturing of full-blown Regietheater—German for “director’s theater,” a style of opera production prevalent in Europe in which the director imposes an extraneous, usually updated, and always grotesque new plot on a defenseless work. But director Mary Zimmerman’s updated Sonnambula is still as nonsensical a rewriting as the more brutal assaults on musical integrity that are now a matter of course in German and other European houses.

La Sonnambula is classic bel canto, an early-nineteenth-century Italian style that pairs long, often florid, vocal lines to a simple orchestral accompaniment. La Sonnambula’s plot is also simple, if fanciful. Amina and Elvino, residents of a Swiss village, are rapturously in love and about to be married. A count arrives in the village and is told about a local ghost. That night, Amina sleepwalks into the count’s bedroom while singing of her love for Elvino. The count realizes that the village “ghost” is simply a sleepwalking Amina and leaves her sleeping innocently in his bed. The villagers and Elvino discover Amina in the count’s bed the next morning and suspect the worst. Elvino angrily calls off the wedding, but after much heartbreak and a public recurrence of Amina’s unconscious wanderings, the lovers reconcile and wed.

Zimmerman finds that this plot strains credulity. A suggestion to directors: If you can’t accept a libretto’s premises, walk away. It is not for you to “fix” a work of art. Moreover, your efforts to do so will inevitably produce incoherence magnitudes greater than that which you set out to correct. Confident in her own narrative gifts, however, Zimmerman updates the plot of La Sonnambula: now it is about a contemporary opera company rehearsing a production of La Sonnambula. And as Zimmerman explains in the program notes: “All of the events and relations of Bellini’s characters . . . happen to the performers in their own real lives.”

This “solution” creates all the usual problems of updating and adds a whole new set of its own. As a purely logical matter, if it strains credulity that all the residents of a nineteenth-century Swiss village could be ignorant of the phenomenon of sleepwalking, as Zimmerman observes in the program notes, how much more likely is it that a group of twenty-first-century singers could be similarly ignorant of it—much less a group of singers rehearsing La Sonnambula?

But this conundrum is a trivial irritant compared with the minute-by-minute difficulties that this production inflicts on the audience. The action unfolds in the company’s rehearsal space, a light-filled downtown loft beautifully designed by Daniel Ostling. But because Regietheater has not yet taken the inevitable next step of actually rewriting libretti and adding new music, Zimmerman has a problem: she has no way to demarcate when the twenty-first-century singers are performing in character, rehearsing Bellini’s roles, and when they are acting out their own lives. We never know whether we are watching a rehearsal in progress—as the constant stage business of costume-measuring and scene calls suggests—or watching events happening to the singers themselves.

The pivotal sleepwalking scene, for example, is inscrutable. “Amina” sleepwalks into the bed of the “Count” in the empty rehearsal loft in the middle of the night. (Zimmerman draws effectively on contemporary stagecraft’s bag of tricks for this first sleepwalking scene: the back doors of the Met’s auditorium are flung open and a starkly backlit Natalie Dessay, as Amina, glides down the left aisle of the hall toward the stage, singing.) Are we observing a rehearsal of the sleepwalking scene—in which case, why are the singers rehearsing in the middle of the night? Or are we seeing real life—in which case, does the singer playing the count have a bed in the rehearsal loft into which the singer playing Amina has sleepwalked? Why would he? And how would the company’s star soprano have sleepwalked into it?

Even more implausibly, why would the chorus, returning to the loft the next morning, be shocked and upset to find one of their members in another’s bed—routine behavior in every opera and theater company? Nothing in older literature makes as preposterous a transition into a modernized setting as a heroine’s virginal purity, an absolutely essential plot device in the vast majority of theatrical and operatic works up until contemporary times. In Zimmerman’s Sonnambula, we are to believe—if we are seeing the singers’ actual lives and not a rehearsal—that the worldly prima donna of a modern-day opera troupe could plead piteously on behalf of her virtue to her fellow musicians.

Throughout the performance, I found myself longing for Peter Sellars’s self-important crib sheets, those prolix program notes with which the enfant terrible of American Regietheater decodes his preposterously modernized productions, telling us, say, that the reason Donna Elvira looks dazed is that she has just been shooting up heroin in a back alley with her john, Leporello. At least I might know where I was supposed to be. But Zimmerman’s director’s note only makes matters murkier, especially with its hint of fancy French theory: The “hyper-reality [of the setting’s transposition] is meant to lend dimension and plausibility to these characters while still allowing space for the charm of the original setting through the fact that ‘Switzerland’ is what is being so faithfully and innocently rehearsed.” Even if Zimmerman had been inclined to provide a translation key, it is unlikely that she could have. She appears to have simply thrown up her hands and said to the audience, “Oh, to heck with it, you figure it out.”

Is it nit-picking to demand clarity from a director? Perhaps we should just give ourselves over to ambiguity: “The Zimmerman Sonnambula is both a rehearsal and real life; no need to get too precise about it.” As a postmodern theorist might say: All language (and communication) is fundamentally undecidable. But one of the great satisfactions of art is seeing how a guiding mind has created form and meaning out of anarchy. If a
creator punts and leaves key questions undecided, why bother with art at all?

Though within the greater scheme of Regietheater the Zimmerman Sonnambula is harmless, it cannot refrain from that most characteristic Regietheater tic: eliciting an audience guffaw at more innocent theatrical conventions. The choristers enter the final scene in excessively bright lederhosen and dirndls, in which they move with wooden heartiness. On cue, the audience laughs. “Phew! What luck that we didn’t get that version of the opera!” they are supposed to feel. “We’re too sophisticated for this Heidi schlock.”

But I doubt that I was the only audience member peering through this production darkly, trying to imagine the effect the opera might have had in its original form. La Sonnambula hasn’t been performed at the Met for 36 years; for many viewers, the Zimmerman production represents their first staged exposure to it. Surely most ticket holders would rather have seen how Bellini united story, words, and music than have seen them torn asunder. The boos that, according to the New York Times, greeted Zimmerman on opening night suggest as much.

As for musical values, the production was beyond reproach. Tenor Juan Diego Flórez, who sang Elvino, is one of the most delightful presences on the contemporary opera stage, charming, self-effacing, and energetic. His vocal attacks were flawless and his light, pure sound seemingly effortless. Dessay is perhaps the leading soprano in the bel canto repertory today and combines a vivacious acting ferocity with a melting and modulated singing line. The French baritone Michele Pertusi infused the count with a Mozartean suavity.

At the cost of making enemies, however, I confess that I am puzzled by why the idiom of Bellini and Donizetti is the paradigmatic opera style for so many opera lovers. Yes, many melodies in bel canto operas are sinuous and poignant, but what about “Soave sia il vento,” “Voi che sapete,” and “Dove sono?” (The phrase “bel canto” originally included eighteenth-century opera singing, but now is used almost exclusively to refer to early-nineteenth-century Italian works. Rossini is usually joined with Bellini and Donizetti, but the manic brilliance of Il Barbiere di Siviglia catapults it out of the bel canto realm into a celestial category of one, in my opinion.) “Veni, me sequere fida,” from Vivaldi’s Juditha Triumphans, delivers as much lethal beauty as anything that has come afterward. And in the bel canto repertory, the melody is almost all that there is. The orchestral writing is generic, elementary, and interchangeable. The string arpeggios accompanying Amina’s devastatingly melancholy “Ah! Non credea mirarti” could have been lifted straight out of Norma or Lucia di Lammermoor and no one would notice. The same goes for the endlessly repeated two-step that paces “Ah! Non giunge uman pensiero.” In fact, one of the signal traits of bel canto orchestral writing is that the same jaunty formulas often accompany both tragic and joyous arias. But these are my own shortcomings, which one day I may overcome.

General Manager Peter Gelb came to the Metropolitan Opera in 2006 promoting the idea that he would bring “theatrical values” to the house. Critics politely refrained from noting that impresario Rudolph Bing had made just such a promise when he took over the Met in 1950. But it would have been even more interesting if someone had asked Gelb which Met productions he viewed as insufficiently “theatrical.” A revival of a 1993 production of Antonín Dvořák’s Rusalka this season suggests how shaky is Gelb’s claim to be pulling the Met out of theatrical torpor, especially in light of commissions like the Zimmerman Sonnambula.

Rusalka is a fairy tale that will be familiar to those who have read The Little Mermaid. A water-nymph wants to become human in order to win the love of a prince. A witch grants her wish, but only on condition that she lose her voice. Lacking speech and carnal passion, she fails to hold on to the prince’s love, and their involvement ends tragically. The opera is musically wondrous, filled with late Romantic darkness as well as folk directness. Rusalka’s father, a water gnome, laments her sorrows in a haunting, restless aria that shifts between painful foreboding, a sweet lullaby, and a classic Dvořák waltz.

And the Met’s production, by director Otto Schenk and set designer Günther Schneider-Siemssen, is simply gorgeous. Schneider-Siemssen created a magical glen where Rusalka, her father, and several wood-nymphs live. Their forest pool glimmers in the moonlight; the water gnome is able to dive beneath its shimmering surface. The silvery greens and blues of the horizon recall a Corot landscape, while the willows and oaks around the pool have the delicate filigreed detail of a pre-Raphaelite fantasy. When the witch Ježibaba brews up Rusalka’s transformative potion, courteous forest creatures—child-sized mice, salamanders, and dragonflies—emerge from the forest to watch and dance. The production allows the viewer to slip effortlessly into Dvořák’s magical world and live there for three and a half glorious hours. This is theater at its most essential. Schenk introduced no distancing irony into the production but put himself into loving service of the music and story. The singing was also superlative. Stephanie Blythe, as Ježibaba, continues to pour out her overwhelming legato for a grateful, marveling New York. Renée Fleming as Rusalka, Kristinn Sigmundsson as her father, and Aleksandrs Antonenko as the prince all gave beautiful performances.

Peter Gelb has done many wonderful things for the Met. Live movie broadcasts have vastly expanded opera’s reach. He continues to show a terrific flair for marketing. Several of Gelb’s commissions, such as Bart Sher’s Barbiere di Siviglia and Anthony Minghella’s Madama Butterfly, have been valuable additions to the house. This season, Nicolas Joël’s production of Puccini’s La Rondine was beautifully rendered, and John Cox’s Thaïs respected the story.

But the current Sonnambula is a reminder that hiring hot theatrical properties like Mary Zimmerman has no relationship to whether an opera will be appropriately served. Even the silliest, most unlikely opera plot is a precious gift from the past, one that opens an imaginative world that we no longer occupy. Rather than trying to make old-fashioned stories more “plausible” and modern, we should honor their artifice and the innocence that made them possible. We will never have anything more from where they were born.

Rusalka’s final performance is March 21. La Sonnambula’s final performance is April 3, and its matinee will be broadcast live in movie theaters on March 21.


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