[…] have long, long, long melodies of the sort that no one had ever written before.”
Leaving the alleged “poverty” aside, what Wagner and Verdi, the titans of nineteenth-century opera, learned from Bellini was the art of writing long-breathed, sweeping melodies not built up of motivic repetition and short periods, but which seem to unfold naturally and endlessly without falling into patterns. Nowhere are those inimitable melodies more in evidence than in his La sonnambula of 1831.
La sonnambula was Bellini’s seventh opera, and his fifth on a libretto by his preferred collaborator Felice Romani (1788-1865). By the time he came to write it he had already established an international reputation with La pirata (1827), La straniera (1829), and his operatic reworking of the Romeo and Juliet story, I Capuleti e i Montecchi (1830), and could assert his worth by demanding an appropriate fee. (As it happened, his fee for La sonnambula doubled the top fee that Rossini had received in 1823.) Bellini knew that he had won a market for his music: “My style is now heard in the most important theaters of the world,” he wrote in 1830 while about to embark on the score, “and with the greatest enthusiasm.” He therefore took his time with La sonnambula, wrote slowly, and produced a masterpiece.
Yet La sonnambula emerged from an entirely different project: Romani and Bellini had first begun to write an opera on Victor Hugo’s swashbuckling historical romance Hernani, only to encounter difficulties with the censors. They then scuttled the project, but not the music, and turned to entirely different material set in rural Switzerland (“at the foot of the Jungfrau”). La sonnambula follows in the time-honored pastoral-comic tradition popularized by Favart and Sedaine in the eighteenth century and modernized by Rossini in La gazza ladra (1817). Here the high passions of Victor Hugo gave way to the lighter realism of the comédie larmoyante, where sentimentalism reigned supreme and a happy ending was de rigueur – though, as La sonnambula amply shows, this was no impediment to depth of feeling. The two collaborators turned to a play by Eugène Scribe entitled La sonnambule, ou L’arrivée d’un nouveau seigneur that had been recast as a ballet-pantomime with music by Ferdinand Hérold and performed in Paris just a few years earlier, in 1827. Once again Bellini took a strong hand in shaping the libretto to suit his needs: one of Romani’s original ideas – that Amina was the unknown illegitimate daughter of the “new lord” Count Rodolfo – was summarily dropped at Bellini’s insistence, thereby happily removing an unwelcome aura of incest. Lacking a standard generic term for their creation (it is not quite a comic opera, nor a dramma per musica, nor yet an opera semiseria, which requires a basso buffo part), the two collaborators called it a melodrama – a term that seems to fit perfectly today.
The score emerged slowly, but with great care and attention to detail. The overwhelming presence of elegiac melody and the relative absence of passionate outbursts gave the opera a unity of style and mood that makes La sonnambula unique in Bellini’s output. No less striking is the variety of formal solutions: all the arias but one are in two tempos; arias may turn into duets, duets into ensembles, and either may mutate to incorporate dialogue; at any point the chorus or soloists may add poignant commentary. The range of formal solutions is especially evident at the opening of the work: rather than an instrumental overture, the opera begins with a fluent Introduction, a mélange of orchestral passages and offstage chorus leading to a short cavatina by a minor character (Lisa) and ending in a choral serenade interspersed with commentary from the soloists. The opera, Bellini immediately lets us know, will not be a potboiler.
The première of La sonnambula, given in Milan on 6 March 1831, was an overwhelming triumph that reverberated throughout the world of opera. It immediately swept through the theaters of Italy, and the two main singers of the première, Guiditta Pasti and Giovanni Battista Rubini, quickly found themselves engaged to sing the work in London and Paris that same year. By 1834 it was being heard in Germany, by 1835 in New York, by 1837 in St. Petersburg, and it was the very first opera ever presented in Chicago (1850). The greatest coloratura sopranos of Bellini’s century and the next took the work into their repertoires: Maria Malibran, Henriette Sontag, Jenny Lind, Adelina Patti, Lily Pons, Maria Callas, Renata Scotto, Joan Sutherland, Ileana Cotrubas, Edita Gruberová, Cecilia Bartoli, Natalie Dessay. Indeed, La sonnambula is the only Bellini opera to have enjoyed an unbroken performance tradition since the moment of its creation.
That said, the work we hear today is not quite as Bellini conceived it. Originally the part of Amina was designed for a coloratura mezzo of the sort favored by Rossini, but with fewer of that master’s purely decorative embellishments. Over the years the part acquired high notes and special vocal effects that have elevated it into a soprano role. In contrast, the part of Elvino, written for a high, light tenor, has become lower (by as much as a major third) and more dramatic, thereby altering the character of the figure and of the entire work. La sonnambula is now considered a prima donna opera, and the lead male role of Elvino has proved especially difficult to cast, though it has been memorably sung by Alfredo Kraus, Nicolai Gedda, and Luciano Pavarotti.
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