Peter Gelb introduced the dress rehearsal for La Sonnambula by saying that, as with many other operas, the plot is weak even though the music is wonderful, and so Mary Zimmerman, the director of this new production, found a new way for an audience to get along with the opera. Anthony Tommasini’s review of the production appeared in today’s New York Times. He also did not think much of the plot, but also did not appreciate its staging as a contemporary opera company rehearsing this antique opera. He thought that the strands of the plot did not make sense when transposed into a contemporary setting. Would any present day diva be shunned by her company because she had a one night stand with an impresario who was the stand in for the Count of the “standard” production? There was no one to one correspondence, Tommasini opined, between the original and its new setting.
I think that interpretation is to miss the point of the Zimmerman production, which is to at first do a Carmen Jones updating of Carmen but then move gradually into a counterpoint between the original and the copy and then, in the final scene of the production, surrender to the original, when the chorus sheds its modern rehearsal clothes and puts on the Alpine peasant gear. There are a number of neat touches along the way as each setting makes a point about what would happen in the other setting. The modern wardrobe mistress refuses to hang up the prima donna’s coat when she returns to rehearsal after her disgrace, which is the way a modern employee would show disdain for a modern superior, and makes you wonder about what a peasant girl might have done back then under similar circumstances to someone suddenly thought an outcast. The humiliation of the diva as a result of the disclosure of her escapade makes you think along a reverse route. A modern woman, vindicated at last of the charges against her, might have told the boyfriend who did not stand by her in her time of need to get lost. She could always find another boyfriend, something not available in a time when virginity was supposedly the dowry brought by a girl to a marriage. This audience member was left with a sense of how perennially appealing this story is, for some mysterious reason, even though it seems so archaic. This point of view doesn’t require a one to one correspondence between the plot points of the original and the re-imagined.
Actually, there is a perfectly plausible reading of the Bellini opera that does not require any updating or apology for its imperfections. Think of it as a comic opera of the sort Donizetti presented in The Magic Elixir. This time, though, there is a lot of exaggerated, melodramatic emotion to be made fun of. Think of Rudigore. The woman found out and disgraced is redeemed by a turn to farce that liberates the audience from thinking all that badly of a woman who does not live up to the principles of pent up purity that are ascribed to the times in which the opera is set, something that is, remember, already a time past to its original audience. An Alpine peasant community is presented to a mid nineteenth century audience highly conscious of the ways in which men and women fool one another.
Amina, the heroine, has made quite a catch for herself, stolen him away, in fact, from another woman, through charms unnamed other than they make her stand out as they might in a prima donna: charm, hauteur, sexiness, whatever. She is going to do well for herself. She, however, has a lapse. She “finds” herself in the room of a Count. As the expression goes, he exudes the aphrodisiac known as power. She falls into his arms while invoking the name of her betrothed, which indicates the confusions of object possible when in the spell of lust. (The current production has the Count/impresario cover her with his coat and leave the room. He is a gentleman in that he somewhat suspects her of being drunk or otherwise not her self, though I think that this production had to keep her technically innocent so as to further the idea that she was wronged, when all that has to be suggested is that she got carried away just this time and now has to deal with the consequences.)
When the village, that nest of busybodies, comes to call on the Count, which is fairly ludicrous in itself in that you would think he could protect his privacy, have a bodyguard or two, they discover the woman in his bed to be Amina and, in this production, treat her as disgraced, though you could also imagine them retreating in embarrassment at having discovered something they had no right to discover and aware that the discovery would complicate the matter of her wedding. How can the disgrace be undone so that the status quo ante can be restored?
The Count comes to the rescue. He brings forth a book that speaks of a disease known as sleepwalking and that Amina is guilty of nothing more than that. The Zimmerman production treated that recitation as a rather flat plot device, as if the crowd would not gawk at this “scientific” information which they had never heard of before that was nonetheless capable of solving all their problems. The Count could be presented as reading the passage from the book as if it were a magical incantation that transformed one event into something else, the opposite of what it was, Amina having her virginity restored by the trick of saying losing it was not her intent, whatever were her feelings. A trickery of words is all that those prim village sentiments amount to.
Support for this interpretation comes from a subsequent scene where a rival for the affections of her betrothed, and among the party of those who feel betrayed by Amina’s betrayal of their moral code, is revealed to have left a glove in the Count’s room, and the Count will not be bothered to speak of that encounter, perhaps so as to shame the other woman, or because his magic can’t work to exonerate all the women who have joined him in bed. Indeed, the bridegroom, still unconvinced that Amina is “honest”, wonders if all women are unfaithful. This drew a laugh at the dress rehearsal I saw, and is the key line in the libretto. It suggests that women can be unfaithful, and like as not will be, so long as they leave no clues behind for their clueless men. Middle class morality is sustained by artifice rather than by actual fidelity.
The bridegroom is convinced that his betrothed is indeed suffering from sleepwalking because she wanders into the scene supposedly in that condition, the Count announcing the stage direction that she is not to be disturbed because it might kill her. Zimmerman dresses this up by having Amina walk along a ledge, but there is no need of that. The unnatural awaking of a sleepwalker may be enough to kill her, or so a pseudo-science of sleepwalking might suggest, and the only one who seems knowledgeable about this ailment is the Count who is informing the villagers how they are to deal with it.
It is very convenient that Amina shows up this way to confirm the diagnosis. The bridegroom is won over, the chorus breaks out into a happy tune, and all is restored in the world, as well as our sense that the war between the sexes is both amusing and complicated, and I don’t know why Bellini and his audience would not have appreciated that. So let’s give some credit to a plot before dismissing it or trying out imaginative gimmicks to make it otherwise digestible.