Mary Zimmerman’s production of La Sonnambula, which premiered in 2009, has one foot in a Swiss village, the other in a rehearsal room, where the director recreated the transcendent moments that happen when great artists are at ease. By Matt Dobkin
“I take the plot of La Sonnambula to heart,” declares director Zimmerman, whose production of Bellini’s opera took the action out of the Swiss village indicated in the libretto and placed it in a modern-day rehearsal room. “I wanted to find a way to present it that allows for the possibility that this story could be real and its characters full human beings. One of the reasons it’s not performed that much is that it’s dramaturgically challenging. Not a lot actually happens. But because of that, I felt that the opera could bear some additional complexity in terms of the staging.”
In her conception, created with her longtime collaborators Daniel Ostling (sets) and Mara Blumenfeld (costumes), an opera company is rehearsing La Sonnambula. Lines blur as the world of the opera and the world of the rehearsal intersect, creating a kind of double reality that is in keeping with a story that is, after all, about a sleepwalker. “The sleepwalker and the theatrical performer have something in common,” the director explains. “Performers have a foot in two worlds. They find themselves like sleepwalkers on a stage, creating an imaginary world in which they are entirely immersed but which is, nonetheless, entirely imaginary. There is always in stage performers—and in the audience as well—a kind of double consciousness that I think mirrors the double consciousness of the walking dreamer.”
If it sounds complicated, it won’t be for audiences. “The idea would be tricky if they were singing Sonnambula while rehearsing King Lear,” Zimmerman jokes. “That would be impossible to follow, and to understand why on earth they were doing it. But they’re singing La Sonnambula and rehearsing La Sonnambula, so it is La Sonnambula.”
Zimmerman originally planned to stay true to the bucolic setting of the opera. She imagined traditional Swiss garb, cups of hot cocoa—even an onstage recreation of a frozen pond for ice-skating. “I was prepared to go there,” she laughs about embracing Tyrolean accoutrements. “My designers and I very faithfully started down the road of the Swiss village. We embraced that fully, did all our research, planned a trip to Switzerland.” But in Natalie Dessay the director had a fearless star dedicated to testing herself as a performer. It was Dessay who wanted a concept that stretched beyond the conventional approach to Bellini’s bel canto idyll. The French soprano was joined by tenor Juan Diego Flórez, with Evelino Pidò conducting.
Dessay and Zimmerman successfully collaborated on the Met’s hit production of Lucia di Lammermoor, perhaps most memorable for Dessay’s show-stopping mad scene. If it seems like nothing could be more challenging for a singer than that particular operatic moment, Dessay states that, for her, Bellini is harder to master than Donizetti. “You can’t cheat with Bellini,” the soprano says. “In Donizetti, you can act, you can give with your body, you can hide many things. But in Bellini you can’t because there’s nothing else but the music and the purity of the line. You have to give your heart and your soul directly.”
As with his previous opera, I Capuleti e i Montecchi, Bellini produced Sonnambula in lightning haste. The composer, habitually in poor health, was originally tapped by the Teatro Carcano in Milan to write an opera based on Victor Hugo’s Hernani, but Milanese censors opposed the subject (though it was tackled by Verdi about a dozen years later). Instead, he turned to the ballet created by Eugène Scribe on which La Sonnambula is based. The shift in subject meant a quick turnaround time and lots of pressure for the composer, whose health continued to deteriorate. La Sonnambula was a success, thanks largely to the vocal high-wire act of the title character, and it was followed by Norma and I Puritani. But four years after its composition, Bellini was dead at age 33.
Mary Zimmerman, for her part, is “obsessed” with La Sonnambula: “When I’m working on an opera—and I’m finding this really true of La Sonnambula—I get in the frame of mind of, ‘This isn’t just the best opera, this is the only opera! We shouldn’t do any of the others!’ I fall in love with it, and I think that’s necessary.”
Having been tapped to direct the production, Zimmerman spent an entire winter immersing herself in the work, listening to it whenever she could. “I would go on these long hikes with my dog and listen to ‘Ah, non credea’ on my iPod, while climbing over beaver dams in the snow, and so forth,” she says. “And suddenly it was all I could think about. But it’s a great ravishment to have that kind of intimacy.”
Zimmerman’s Lucia production was informed by the director’s travels to Scotland. The countryside and, in particular, Culzean Castle on the country’s west coast, inspired the look of the show. Sonnambula, on the other hand, comes largely out of Zimmerman’s imagination and prior experience of dozens of rehearsal rooms. Once the rehearsal idea was devised, she and Ostling began to dream up inventive ways in which the situation of the rehearsal room and that of the opera would coincide, using familiar items and rituals of rehearsal. Trees, for example, might be invoked by upturned music stands, whose legs suggest branches. When a purported ghost enters the scene, the rehearsal room lights may begin to flicker and buzz.
Perhaps the most significant visual element was very small: the pair of green “rehearsal shoes” Dessay wore as Amina. When she had them on, she is fully rehearsing, immersed in the scene of the opera; when they’re off, she is in the peripheral world of the rehearsal. The same holds true for the black felt Tyrolean cap that Flórez wore, or not, depending on the scene. The chorus, which played an enormous role in the opera, also aided in conveying the double reality of rehearsal room and Swiss village in which all the actions and relations of the opera are mirrored in those of the room. “I’m certainly not the first to observe this,” Zimmerman says, “but the rehearsal room is a little community. It’s a temporary one, but a very intense and intimate one.” The director incorporated the relationships and personalities in the Met’s actual chorus. The woman who knits during rehearsal breaks knit in the production; choristers who pal around in real life did the same in Zimmerman’s staging.
The director’s ultimate goal was to make the story as real, as felt, as possible. But a byproduct of her approach to La Sonnambula was that the setting so exactly mimics one that is deeply familiar to the singers. “In rehearsals there are frequently moments of transcendence that are much rarer in actual performance,” Zimmerman says. “It is partly due to the contrast between this gorgeous, complex music and the familiar ordinariness of the rehearsal room, but also to the fact that in rehearsal the singers are relaxed and comfortable in themselves. They are unencumbered by the apparatus of full performance—the unfamiliar costumes, the wigs. They can just give over to the music and each other in a way that is really, really beautiful.”
Matt Dobkin is the Met’s Creative Director, Content & Strategy.