La Sonnambula, Opera by V. Bellini
Compared with his best-known work, Norma, Vincenzo Bellini’s La sonnambula is a far gentler affair. That, however, does not make it any less worthy of our attention. In La sonnambula, we care about what happens to Bellini’s characters because they behave in ways that still feel real to us today. Even that nineteenth-century tendency for the lead roles to fall in love with each other all too quickly is dealt with by Bellini and his librettist Felice Romani’s brilliant telling of the story.
Amina is engaged to marry Elvino. But Lisa, who runs the local inn, is unhappy with the match; she was once Elvino’s fiancée. A stranger called Rodolfo arrives to complicate matters further. He is warned to beware of the village phantom. But when the spectre comes to his bedroom, it turns out to be Amina sleepwalking.
Chivalrously, he does not take advantage of her, but no one believes either her or indeed Rodolfo’s protestations of innocence. Not surprising given that Rodolfo has been revealed as the new Count. Who would have denied him his “droit de seigneur” to bed whoever he liked as the lord of the manor? Elvino jumps to the same conclusion as everyone else - Amina has been deceitful - and makes preparations to marry his old flame, Lisa, instead.
When Teresa, the local mill owner discovers a handkerchief in the Count’s room belonging to Lisa, everyone realises that it is the innkeeper who has pulled the wool over everyone’s eyes, not Amina. The truth is that Amina’s arrival had stopped the Count and Lisa having their own tryst. Just then a figure, clad in white, appears walking down from the top of the mill: Amina, La sonnambula, lamenting the loss of Elvino.
Premiered on 6 March 1831 at the Teatro Carcano in Milan, the decision to cast one of the leading singers of the day, Giuditta Pasta, as Amina was a masterstroke. Operagoers adored her interpretation of the role and many of the arias reserved for Amina, including "Ah! Non giunge uman pensiero" and “Ah, non credea mirarti” continue to be mainstays in the concert repertoire.
When listening to Bellini one can begin to imagine what it would have been like if either Liszt or Chopin had turned their hand to opera. His writing, especially for Amina, is unerringly beautiful throughout. The vocal gymnastics typical of the period in which La sonnambula was written are not to everyone’s taste, especially if meaningful expression is sacrificed for displays of sheer virtuosity. Audiences at the Venice Opera House, however, can look forward to La sonnambula being bel canto in the true meaning of the words.