Online opera guide & synopsis to Bellini’s LA SONNAMBULA
With “La sonnambula” Bellini created his first great masterpiece. The singers Battista Rubini and Giuditta Pasta made this opera immortal. 120 years later Maria Callas triggered a renaissance of this work, which continues to this day. A few months after La sonnambula Bellini wrote the greatest success of his career with “Norma”, making 1831 the happiest year of his career.
♪ Act I
♪ Act II
♪ D’un pensiero e d’un accento Quartetto
♪ Ah! Non credea mirarti Sleepwalking scene
Felice Romani, based on Eugene Scribes La sonnambule.
Count Rodolfo, missed owner of the castle (bass) - Teresa, Miller (Mezzosoprano) - Amina, foster daughter (soprano) - Elvino, rich man (Tenor) - Lisa, Inn owner
EMI with Maria Callas, Cesare Valletti, Gabriella Corturan, Giuseppe Modesti under the direction of Leonard Bernstein and the Orchestra and Chorus of La Scala di Milano
History and Libretto
When Bellini began composing the opera, he was under considerable time pressure. He had to cancel the planned scoring of Romani’s libretto “Ernani” in November 1830 due to censorship.They quickly had to search for a new text, for the Sicilian had less than two months until the planned premiere in February 1831.
His librettist Romani was a busy author. He was tremendously productive and wrote over 90 librettos for operas during his career. When he worked with Bellini on Ernani, he wrote simultaneously for Donizetti and Rossini. In order to create a new libretto within weeks, he quickly selected the novel “la Sonnambule” from the poet-factory of Eugène Scribe, which required only a few adjustments to the scenery and text. At the beginning of January Donizetti was able to begin his compositional activity.
The Sonnambula belongs to the somewhat unfortunate genre of the “Semiseria”. This type of opera suffers from “not being able to move to tears” nor produce great laughter. The story of “La sonnambula” is not tragic, since Amina only sleepwalks and does not go insane like Donizetti’s Lucia. On the other hand, it lacks any Rossinian comedy, because it only takes the “lieto fine” (happy end) from the genre of “opera buffa”.
Since the piece is uninspiring from a dramatical view and Bellini wrote for voices with long lines and great coloratura skills, it requires accomplished singers in the two leading roles. For the premiere im Milano, he had the two greatest singers of his time at his disposal, Giuditta Pasta and Battista Rubini, so Bellini jumped at the chance to draw on the full range of talent.
Rubini had an immensely soft voice with a tremendous range. He could take his voice to the highest notes and is said to have even reached the high G. Bellini played this strength in the role of Elvino, with the disadvantage that the role would be forever difficult to cast and would be often transposed down for future tenors.
Giuditta Pasta was a dramatic coloratura soprano and one of the three Giuditta that Bellini so adored (Pasta, Turina, Grisi). Her coloratura technique and stage presence must have been formidable. She was a much sought-after singer in London and Paris and had shortly before premiered Donizetti’s Anna Bolena.
With Jenny Lind and Adelina Patti, the era of lyrical coloratura sopranos began in the course of the 19th century, and the opera became, with their successors, an opera for “canaries”, i.e. singers who mainly performed their coloraturas. In the playlist with Luisa Tetrazzini with “Ah! Non giunge” you can hear a (beguiling) recording of a representative of this species from 1911.
With her legendary performances of the 1950s, Maria Callas took Amina back to her beginnings as a dramatic role and triggered a renaissance of this work, which was later associated with the names of Joan Sutherland, Anna Moffo or Edita Gruberova.
LA SONNAMBULA Act I
Synopsis: In a Swiss village the villagers celebrate Amina’s engagement in front of a tavern.
Bellini opens the opera with only a few orchestral measures. Then “Voci lontani” (distant voices), echo effects and pastoral sounds draw a rural idyll.
Viva! Viva! – Bonynge
Lisa is unhappily in love with Elvino
Synopsis: The innkeeper Lisa is unhappy because she is in love with Amina’s fiancé Elvino.
A sad introduction played by horn and oboe introduces Lisa’s Cavatina. It is a beautiful, uncomplicated melody that describes Lisa as a simple country girl.
Tutto è gioia – Buchanan
Synopsis: Alessio tries to woo Lisa, but he is turned down. The villagers celebrate Amina, who thanks them warmly.
Bellini composed a tender, beautifully melodic entrance song for Amina. With the jump of the sixth in the main melody and the flowery ornaments, it is clearly more artistic and soulful than Lisa’s.
In this passage we hear Maria Callas’ in the studio recording of 1957, who shines with her colorful voice and the brilliant ornaments like the trills on “brillo” and the great chromatic scales.
Compagni …. Come per me sereno – Callas
Amina is happy
Synopsis: She is happy and embraces Teresa, who once took Amina in as an orphan.
The melody is introduced by flutes and repeated by Amina (“Place your hand here upon my breast”). The country people accompany her with dotted notes to draw the beating of the heart. Amina’s voice jumps again and again into high registers (up to the high D in “sostener”) to express the happiness she feels.
Sutherland recorded the Sonnambula twice with her husband Richard Bonynge. This recording dates from 1965 and shows her voice in its early bloom.
Sopra il sen la man mi posa – Sutherland
The romantic duet
Synopsis: Now Elvino arrives as well. He has visited his mother’s grave to get her blessing for the engagement to Amina. Soon the notary arrives to settle the marriage contract. The wealthy Elvino brings his fortune into the marriage, the destitute Amina only her heart. As a sign of loyalty, he gives Amina the ring his mother once wore.
Bellini gives Elvino one of his long, melting melodies in the style of a nocturne. Bellini makes the passage “al nostro amore” especially beautiful by accompanying only by horn alone, which makes it blossom in a wonderfully romantic way. Solemnly the choir accompanies the couple as quietly and tenderly as if it did not want to disturb the togetherness. The two lovers sing the beautiful ending in thirds (“our hearts were by a God united”), at first accompanied only by the pizzicato of the strings and at they conclude by singing a cappella.
The following recording is taken from the legendary Scala live recording of Maria Callas’ opera under the direction of Leonard Bernstein and has remained the reference recording of this opera to this day. Her partner Cesare Valletti impressed with his elegant, lyrical voice.
Prendi : l’anel ti dono – Callas / Valletti
We listen to a second recording with Joan Sutherland and Luciano Pavarotti. The two of them were linked by a decade-long artistic partnership. We are listening to a beautiful recording from a gala in 1983.
Prendi : l’anel ti dono – Sutherland / Pavarotti
Synopsis: The two newlyweds are happy, because tomorrow the marriage will take place.
Ah vorrei trovar parola
A stranger shows up
Synopsis: Suddenly the celebrants notice the arrival of a stranger. He calls himself Rodolfo and asks Lisa for directions to the castle. Since he would not reach it before nightfall, he decides to spend the night in Lisa’s inn. Rodolfo is not unfamiliar with the area, for he once spent wonderful days in this village.
At a measured tempo, as befits his position, Rodolfo sings a nostalgic aria. As if he were a foreign body, he is accompanied only very cautiously by the choir of the village people.
Vi raviso, o luoghi ameni – Furlanetto
The story of the wondrous ghost
Synopsis: He mingles with the celebrating people and the bride is introduced to him. Rodolfo becomes thoughtful, her face reminds him too much of the past. His compliments to Amina reinforce Lisa’s jealousy and arouse Elvino’s envy of the noble stranger. Rodolfo learns that the lord of the castle has been dead for four years and that his son, much to the chagrin of the population, left him many years ago and never returned. Rodolfo mysteriously hints that the Count’s son is still alive and that he will appear one day. Then a signal sounds, exhorting the people to go to their homes to be safe from the ghost. Amused, Rodolfo wants to know more about it. The villagers tell him about a ghost dressed in white that appears regularly. Everyone has seen it, even the animals are afraid of it.
A fosco cielo – Bonynge
The murderous cadenza in «Son geloso del zefiro errante»
Synopsis: The villagers return to their houses and Rodolfo says goodbye to Amina. The jealous Elvino wants to leave without a greeting. But Amina calms the angry Elvino, and they say goodbye under pledges of love.
This duet begins with a tender passage and then moves on to a gigantic, fully composed cadenza “Ah! Mio bene!”, which takes the two singers’ voices to dizzying heights. The scene ends with a heartbreaking farewell ritual.
Cesare Valletti, a pupil of Tito Schipa, was vocally outstandingly suited to the role of Elvino with his vocal range as Tenore di grazia and was a congenial partner of Maria Callas in Bernstein’s legendary live recording.
Son geloso del zefiro errante – Valletti / Callas
The ghost appears
Synopsis: In the room of the inn, Rodolfo thinks about Amina and Lisa , which he liked extraordinarily well. Lisa knocks on his door. She tells Rodolfo that the whole village has learned from the mayor that he is the missing count. Rodolfo begins to flirt with Lisa, who coquets back, but they are interrupted by the noise on the street. When Lisa quickly hides in the dressing room, she drops her scarf. She observes Amina sleepwalking in a white dress as she appears on the street and enters the Count’s room. When she holds out her hand to Rodolfo to accompany her to the altar, Lisa runs to Elvino to tell him about Amina’s disloyalty. Although Rodolfo is tempted at first, he decides not to take advantage of the situation. He puts Amina on the sofa and leaves the room.
O ciel che tento – Sutherland / Corena
Synopsis: The people have already gathered outside the room and are amused by Amina’s behavior.
Osservate! L’uscio è aperto – Bonynge
Elvino draws the conclusion
Synopsis: Elvino has rushed over and recognizes with horror his fiancée on the canapé of the count. Amina wakes up and is pleased to see Elvino. When he pushes her back, she realizes with horror what has happened. She affirms her innocence, but Elvino breaks off the engagement.
After Amina’s assertion of her innocence, a big quartet develops, a concertato which is inspired by the most beautiful melodies. Amina begins almost without orchestra accompaniment. The other voices join one after the other and little by little the orchestra swells in a huge crescendo until the violins sing the pain in the highest notes and accompany the quartet to its climax.
D’un pensiero e d’un accento … Non piu nozze – Callas / Valletti /
LA SONNAMBULA Act II
Synopsis: Some villagers make their way to the count. They want to ask him to save Amina’s honor.
Qui la selva è piu folta ed ombrosa
Synopsis: Amina and Teresa follow them. As they pass Elvino’s farm, they see him lost in thought. Amina takes courage and speaks to him. But for Elvino everything is over. Bitterly, he tears the ring off her finger.
Vedi, o madre – Sutherland / Pavarotti
A dreaded tenor aria
Synopsis: There they hear the noise of the villagers. They appear triumphantly and say that the count has confirmed Amina’s innocence. But Elvino cannot and will not believe in the count’s assertions.
We come to another “Rubini Aria”, which takes the voice of the tenor to the highest registers with a “D”. Bellini composed a repetition of this infamous cabaletta with a second verse, which is often ommited due vocal reasons.
Alfredo Kraus’ high notes were legend, which he was able to produce with elegance and confidence even in his old age.
Ah! Perché non posso odiarti – Kraus
Lisa’s quirky tones
Synopsis: Lisa sees her opportunity coming. Alessio tries to win her again, but the villagers come to Lisa to congratulate her on her marriage to Elvino, Lisa is overjoyed.
Now Lisa is also allowed to sing a cascade of coloraturas to express her triumph. Bellini, however, does not paint a positive picture of Lisa, the coloraturas are hollow and more reminiscent of cackling than of Amina’s melodious sounds.
De’ lieti auguri a voi son grata – Monzo
Synopsis: Elvino appears and confirms that he is ready to marry Lisa and that the preparations are already made. Then Rodolfo steps into her midst and testifies to Amina’s respectability, but Elvino has seen her with his own eyes in the Count’s bedroom. Rodolfo explains the phenomenon of somnambulism to the people. But Elvino doesn’t want to hear about it and takes Lisa’s hand. When Teresa realizes that Elvino now wants to lead Lisa to the marriage altar, she reveals the secret of the scarf she found in the Count’s bedroom. Lisa stands dazed among the people, and Elvino now sees himself betrayed by two women.
From this scene a beautiful canon-like quartet with choir emerges.
Lisa mendace anch’essa – Pavarotti / Della Jones / Buchanan
The great sleepwalking scene – Ah! Non credea mirarti
Synopsis: There Amina appears on the windowsill. As she sleepwalking crosses the beam above the mill wheel all hold their breath. If she fell, she would die. She reaches the other end and steps onto the square, where she still sleepwalkingly speaks of her love for Elvino in the most moving way.
Only a simple motif of the first violins and the plucking of the basses accompanies the gently breathed suffering of Amina. The melody is a typical Bellini cantilena: elongated and with small intervals without doubling by instruments. Bellini composed an extremely sparse accompaniment for it; to the sound of the strings we hear only the interjections of a plaintive oboe, later the accompaniment of an expressive solo cello. The so-called “flower aria” ends with a few intimate coloraturas.
The famous American critic John Ardoin wrote that Maria Callas went down in the annals of opera with the final act of this opera. She changed the way sopranos sang the role of Amina. Her voice in this sleepwalking scene is entranced and shines with great legato and long lines. In this scene Maria became Amina.
Ah! Non credea mirarti … – Maria Callas
A second recording, tenderly breathed and dreamily portrayed by Anna Moffo in her glamorous young years in a recording for television.
Ah! Non credea mirarti … – Moffo
The bravura aria at the end – «Ah non giunge»
Synopsis: Now Rodolfo allows Elvino to wake her up. Elvino has recognized his mistake and slips the ring over Amina’s finger. Amina is happy.
At the end of the opera Bellini composed a bravura aria for Amina with great leaps in tone, trills and top notes.
We hear the aria in three versions:
Callas sang this aria in 1957 with additional (insane) embellishments by the conductor of the performance Leonard Bernstein. Director Luchino Visconti had the lighting dim up to this aria, and Callas sang this final aria in the glaring stage lights.
Ah ! Non giunge – Callas
Joan Sutherland’s technique allowed her to sing the aria at a crazy tempo and she lead it to a glorious conclusion with breathtaking trills. Pavarotti is said to have been speechless when he learned that Sutherland was able to give an evening performance of ” La traviata” the same day after an noon performance of “La sonnambula”.
Ah ! Non giunge – Sutherland
Luisa Tetrazzini was the biggest “canary” of the twenties. There was no height or coloratura that she could not sing. It is a pleasure to listen to her bird song from 1911.
Ah ! Non giunge – Tetrazzini
Warner with Maria Callas, Cesare Valletti, Gabriella Corturan, Giuseppe Modesti under the direction of Leonard Bernstein and the Orchestra and Chorus of La Scala di Milano.
Peter Lutz, opera-inside, the online opera guide on “LA SONNAMBULA ” by Vincenzo Bellini.