Juan Diego Florez and Natalie Dessay in La Sonnambula
(© Ken Howard)
Juan Diego Florez and Natalie Dessay in La Sonnambula
(© Ken Howard)
Mary Zimmerman received a resounding chorus of boos on Monday night when she took her curtain call at the end of the Metropolitan Opera's extremely foolish -- if admittedly well-sung -- production of Vincenzo Bellini's 1831 melodrama La Sonnambula. And truth be told, there's no getting around her having made a silly story sillier as well as downright confusing.

Thinking she might lend weight to the story, which focuses on about-to-be-married Amina (Natalie Dessay), who sleepwalks into the bedroom occupied by the visiting Count Rodolfo (a strong-voiced Michele Pertusi) and thereby briefly aIienates the affections of fiance Ervino (Juan Diego Florez), Zimmerman has decided to alter Felice Romani's libretto. She's set the goofy proceedings not in a Swiss village but in a contemporary rehearsal hall (designed by Daniel Ostling) where the soprano and tenor singing the central roles are involved in a similar romantic snarl and are apparently also named --don't laugh -- Amina and Ervino.

No matter how Zimmerman tries to justify her loopy choice in a high-falutin program note by likening rehearsals to sleepwalking states or some such nonsense, one never knows if we're watching the characters in the opera or the singers readying their performances. Nor do we know why at the end of the first act the members of the chorus -- in costume designer Mara Blumenfeld's unimaginative street clothes -- trash the place. Moreover, given today's financial climate, Zimmerman's modern-dress version has the added effect of looking like another way the Met has trimmed its once-copious budget.

What Zimmerman thankfully hasn't done is suppress the bel canto glories that Dessay and Florez are prepared to shower on the piece. Dessay, a gamine reminiscent of the Italian actress Giulietta Masina, is asked to enter cradling a cell phone to her ear and has to spend early moments trying on shoes and dismissing wigs, but none of that affects the beauty of the Bellini flourishes she handles with ease. Even singing in an orchestra aisle, she marshals her tones gracefully, never less than in the Ophelia-like mad-scene "Ah, non credea mirarti." Only in Amina's final he-loves-me-again moments does upper-register strain tug at her.

The lithe Florez -- who fortunately isn't asked to do much silly stage business -- continues to astonish the Met audience every time he eases into an Ervino aria. His early "Son geloso del zeffiro errante" is as effortless as the zephyrs he claimed to envy for their proximity to Amina. When later he grieved his loss of Amina in "Tutto e sciolto," he sustains and shapes his final notes -- having thrown in some high Ds with the high Cs -- so that he almost holds them longer than the applause that greets his astounding feat.

In addition, Florez is as engaging an actor as Dessay. It's no wonder they like working together; for their sakes, let's hope the next time, it's in a much smarter production.