Saturday, April 04, 2009

I recently went to see the Metropolitan Opera's transmission of La Sonnambula, which left me pretty goddamn frustrated.

I should note that I love the idea of New York Operas being beamed into movie theaters across the globe, and it may prove to be a lifeline now that I live in a small town (albeit one relatively close to at least 4 cities with their own opera companies). I've been trying to see as many as my schedule and interest allows and I'll continue to do so.

And I should note that I'm a bit slow on the uptake when it comes to music and not the sort to complain, or you know even notice, when a singer goes for the high B-flat instead of the high C or other common complaints I see when browsing amazon reviews or youtube comments (which are actually often insightful and learn-ed on non-Andrea Bocelli opera videos, which I only mention because youtube comments are usually so insipid that I wonder if the awful IMDB forum users mass migrated). I don't think I'll ever go to an opera put on by a reputable opera company and think "Gee, these guys just aren't up to my standards". Not that I wouldn't like to have one of those ears, but that sort of refinement seems as distant to me as a superpower.

My approach to opera is much more base: I like hearing pretty voices singing pretty music surrounded by pretty sets. I'm always a little disappointed when I go to a show and they've opted for a minimalist set (the Prince Igor production I saw used only scaffolding, the Carmen I saw only used a white backdrop), but even that I can take in stride because, like with shoegaze, I understand that sometimes it's just about the music, man.

But La Sonnambula presented the first time, I think, where I would have preferred a blank white scrim or ugly scaffolding to the grandiose set it used. The story originally takes place in a small village where the townspeople will believe in ghosts before they believe in sleepwalking, but some one at the Metropolitan Opera saw fit to transpose the setting from the quaint village to a modern day Manhattan rehearsal hall. The villagers are now chorus members, the engaged couple at the center of everyone's attention are now literally and figuratively the leading tenor and soprano (Juan Diego Flores and Natalie Dessay, by the way, who are both fantastic singers and it's a shame they were usurped by their garish surroundings), and the "cleverness" goes on and on without actually going anywhere.

Out of context, the set is wonderful - when the host of the broadcast gave a pre-show tour of the set, I misunderstood and thought she was actually showing us around their rehearsal space and I was marveling at how nice it was. In the context of the show, it's a disaster. The idyllic storyline makes little sense in a modern day setting and the jarring juxtaposition continually pulls you out of the story. And the worst part of it was a minor set piece - a cast aside minature model of the Metropolitan opera stage showing an actual mountain village set laid out meticulously - a tease for what we could have had.

My roommate expected them to gradually ease into a the opera's actual setting and a sort of bonus meta-story about how an opera gets put together starting with rehearsal stagings to dress rehearsals to performance. And while I think that would have also distracted from the actual story, it would have been interesting to see it executed.

I don't normally mind modern time and space transposition, not only in opera, but across other mediums as well. It's something that compliments both the author and the audience with its twin implications that the story is timeless and that any of us could stumble across feelings as profound as the character's while running our everyday lives. But sometimes the details of the stories aren't timeless, and ignoring that and proceeding with the updating anyway will only undercut the emotions of the story that could have been timeless.

It's also something I think better left for material that has been and will be performed in a straight fashion time and time again. While I may be mistaken about how often La Sonnambula is performed, I can't recall another instance in the 15 years I've been sporadically going to see operas where I had the chance to see it and since I don't know when I will be able to see it again, I feel cheated.


  1. Netflix has a dvd of an older, presumably traditional, staging with Anna Moffo as Amina. I've got it on my queue and am waiting to see what this opera is like in its proper setting. Still, it was a fantastic opportunity to hear Dessay and Florez do this opera together, regardless of the setting

  2. Also try YouTube for some clips of Joan Sutherland in a traditional setting (and probably others as well)

  3. ty j. you are a sweetheart