Thursday, March 12, 2009

A Short Performance History of Bellini's "La Sonnambula"

Here it is, finally. I hope this post answers some questions about La Sonnambula for some of my readers. There will undoubtedly be some of you who shall scoff and say that my post is incomplete in many details. I will be the first to say that this may be true, but first I ask the reader to consider that this is a blog post and not a critical reference. If I wished to publish a book on the subject, I would probably refrain from doing it for that very reason. Enjoy it, and feel free to provide commentation on it.

To begin, we must start from the beginning, which is with Vincenzio Bellini. Bellini, by the time he had composed La Sonnambula, was already a distinguished opera composer. He had composed to great success five operas, among these Il Pirata, which the Met introduced into its repertoire in the 2002-2003 season (I have a recording of their broadcast with Renee Fleming and Marcello Giordani.). In his time he was considered the greatest composer of the Bel Canto period, and even today he is highly revered.

When he composed La Sonnambula, Bellini labeled it an opera semiseria, or a "semi-serious work," which we shall assume to mean that it is three parts reality with one part of fiction. The opera premiered in 1831, and the audience loved it. In the role of Amina was Giuditta Pasta, whom we shall regard as a mezzo-soprano because of her range, and the great tenor Giovanni Battista Rubini sang Elvino; indeed Rubini was regarded as the greatest tenor of his generation. Bellini wrote three other operas for him, the aforementioned Il Pirata, I Puritani, and Bianca e Fernando.

As time went on, La Sonnambula was still performed, but it gradually became what is known as a vehicle for the female lead. I hesitate to categorize this part as a soprano since both Pasta and Maria Malibran, who are both considered mezzo-sopranos, sang the role of Amina several times. Adelina Patti, who would later become the most famous opera singer in her prime because of her enormous fees and her diva image, sang this role in her teens at Covent Garden in 1861, but, as Cecilia Bartoli would have us beleive the role of Amina was gradually pushed higher and higher by sopranos eager to show off their technique or to add cadenzas of high tessitura, until today the soprano who sings it must possess a high coloratura voice.

The story is mocked by many as unrealistic, but I think the plot is, for the most part, plausible. For this reason, the story and the music are often cut. The Met was no exception to the rule. In 1964 they mounted a production that was wounded by cuts in everyone's arias except Amina's, who was portrayed by Joan Sutherland. Everyone else was limited to one verse of their arias, and Lise's second aria was not even included; what they offered might have been a concert version with a set, but they may be forgiven since it was the weekend of the World's Fair, and they wanted to profit from all of the tourists who did not usually visit the city. This was not a bad concept, and the only concessions were in the interest of the public, so it appears that nothing was awry except for the production itself. The production is described by Opera News contributor Steven Blier as "...the look of a high-school musical in a very wealthy suburb." The universal hero(ine) of this production was the Amina of Joan Sutherland; it was not designed to showcase anyone else really, which is why I cannot understand how everyone can criticize it for not being dramatically sound. It fulfilled its purpose, for everyone unanimously agrees that Sutherland was superb in her role. This opera did get a broadcast date in 1968, but Paul Jackson gives no account of it in his book Start-Up At The New Met to my recollection.

Eight years later Renata Scotto took up the role at the Met. The production, according to contemporaries, looked even worse than it had before. Still, everyone says that Scotto sang the role just as well as Sutherland, and that her characterization was excellent. Scotto had gotten her start in this role in the '50's as an understudy behind Maria Callas in Scotland. Callas left the run early, and Scotto got her break. In 1972 Scotto gave memorable performances

Today, however, expectations for La Sonnambula are rather higher. I dissent from the remarks made by many critics that we expect it to be more reasonable; if that were true, then it could be said by these same critics that people would never go see a performance of anything by Wagner because none of his operas are even remotely considered real. All of them are based on some epic or legend which many scholars will debate are fictional. This is not the place to express my informed opinion on the subject, but you can definitely see the effects of that argument. Half of our repertoire might suffer from lack of veracity and lack of audience that way. What I expect of the story is that it flows well, that it has continuity, and this plot has that.

This opera is set in a Swiss village. Amina is engaged to Elvino, and the chorus is supposed to be the villagers. These people are remote, at least they could be, and it is often said that they do not believe that a thing such as sleepwalking could exist; however, if they are a remote village as I have chosen to believe, we might say that they do not know that sleepwalking exists. Because of this, they could well be reluctant to put faith in this theory of Amina's actions. Amina, it turns out is a sleepwalker, or a sonnambulist, and she is found in the most deprecating position when she is found by her fiance Elvino in the room of a nobleman at their local inn, asleep. He believes her to be unfaithful, and there starts Amina's troubles. When Rodolfo, the nobleman collaborates Terese's story of Amina's innocenceof the crime of infidelity, Elvino does not believe him until Amina, in the view of all the village, sleepwalks upon the bridge of the mill right over the mill wheel and reenacts the scene of Elvino disowning her as his prospective bride. It comes out that the woman Elvino chose to marry after refusing Amina, Lisa, has been unfaithful, pehaps many times, and then Elvino trusts Amina again at the words of the Count, Rodolfo.

The music of La Sonnambula, most of which I have never heard, is, if the music accompanying Ah, non credea mirarti is to be of any indication, quite beautiful. The two elements of music and acting should more than compensate for any inconsistencies the plot might contain compared to our modern world. One must remember that this was composed in 1831; ideas were quite different then. One interesting note is that it turns out that Baroque composers, who were notorious for using pieces of music that audiences liked again and again in other works, were not the only ones to copy themselves. If one listens carefully to Bellini's Il Pirata, one shall undoubtedly hear strains of the music of Ah, non credea mirarti in the second act of that opera. If an audience likes it once, they probably will not mind hearing it again, I suppose.

Finally, I cannot wait to hear Natalie Dessay and Juan Diego Florez create vocal magic and opulence as the principal roles of Bellini's masterpiece. I have every confidence that we shall not be disappointed with what we hear, though I think this production could be better from what I have seen and heard of it. The Met is presenting this as part of their Live in HD series and as a broadcast on March 21st.

Thank you for reading, and I hope this was both entertaining and informational. As I said at the outset of this little essay, this is by no means meant to be complete in any respect; it only serves as an informal treatise to educate others about La Sonnambula.


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