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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Opera Review: Wide Awake in Dreamland

La Sonnambula rouses a tired Metropolitan Opera season.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The power of the voice: Elvino (Javier Camarena) woos Amina (Diana Damrau)
in the Metropolitan Opera's revival of La Sonnambula. 
Photo by Marty Sohl © 2014 The Metropolitan Opera. 
The Metropolitan Opera's revival of La Sonnambula, (seen Tuesday night) might be the double espresso that this company needs to make it to the end of this largely somnolent opera season. Mary Zimmerman's warm-hearted, "insider" production (set in a pre-gentrification lower Manhattan rehearsal loft as an unnamed opera company rehearses an upcoming production of La Sonnambula) features two stunning bel canto leads. More so, this show offers a commodity that is all too rare at Peter Gelb's opera company these days: a genuine sense of happiness upon leaving the theater.

Diana Damrau found the right blend of comic energy and sympathy-drawing pathos as Amina, the titular sleep-walker. The German soprano's durable stage presence and high-flying coloratura are known quantities to opera-goers. But the big story here is Javier Camarena, the Veracruz-born tenor whose voice and bearing in the role of Elvino recalled (dare we say it) a young Luciano Pavarotti. This is just his second run at the Met (he starred in a 2011 Barber of Seville) but this might be the performance that makes this tenor a star.

There are some similarities between the two voices, a flood of head voice supplanted at just the right moment by a sturdy chest with ringing top notes. He also plays Elvino as a charming young man who slips all to easily into a jealous rage, displaying a convincing range of emotion while sailing fearlessly through Bellini's tricky, exposed writing for the voice. This is notoriously unforgiving music, and his Act II aria "Ah! perch‚ non posso odiarti" capped by a thrilling chest note, both pleased and floored the audience.

Back to Ms. Damrau. She was stellar from her first appearance, making a "grand diva" entrance and having a cell phone conversation as the chorus sang their welcome. After wowing the audience with "Come per me serena" she and Mr. Camarena sang the first in a series of difficult duets. Bellini relies on a smooth harmony between tenor and soprano to convey the sound of two young people falling in love, but his sparse orchestral accompaniment forces the singers to carry the weight.

The first sleep-walk scene brought Act I to its climax, with a barefoot, nightgowned Ms. Damrau making a memorable entrance from the back of the Met's vast orchestra seating, tracked by a single spot as she warbled her way to the stage. The singer's delicate pianissimi had the audience breathless, a hypnotizing performance that ended on a soft, unexpectedly gentle chord. The pell-mell Act I finale, with the lovers breaking up and the actors engaged in a wholesale trashing of their rehearsal space, felt a little forced after this.

Act II is all about bringing Elvino and Amina back together, through the magical powers of forgiveness and quality bel canto technique. It is capped by a second, even longer sleep-walk aria ("Oh! se una volta sol rivederlo io potessi") with Amina perambulating on the ledge of the upper-story rehearsal space (instead of the old mill bridge called for in the libretto). This image resonates strongly with a New York audience. She finished the aria on a "diving board" stage extension over the orchestra pit, this production's one bit of gee-whiz stagecraft. (Her final, pianissimo notes were damaged by an over-eager conductor, who seemed to want to get on with the finale.)

As Lisa, the  jealous, manipulative innkeeper who attempts to destroy the budding romance, Rachelle Durkin had her own marathon Act II aria ("E fia pur vero, Elvino") to contend with, but came off as unlikeable with a sharp, over-bright edge to her voice. The sturdy baritone Michele Pertusi was better, very funny in the supporting role of Rodolfo. The weakest performance of the evening: conductor Marco Armiliato. His flabby, erratic approach to this music constantly threatened to sabotage the best efforts of the singers. Soloists and chorus seemed content to rely on the prompter for most of the show.

The walls of the set reverse and spin for the wedding scene, a big, happy opera buffa finale. As she soared above the stave in "Ah! non giunge uman pensiero" Ms. Damrau had to execute a complicated costume change, pausing for a second in the middle of her vocal gymnastics before diving back into the part. This tiny little fourth-wall break was the evening's most charming moment, a reminder that even great artists aren't afraid to be human. She capped her stunning evening with a series of cartwheels across the stage, and then led a chorus of "Happy Birthday" for Mr. Cammarena during the final bows.

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