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Vincenzo BELLINI (1801-1835)
La Sonnambula, Melodramma in two acts. Libretto by Felice Romani
First performed on 6 March 1831 at the Teatro Carcano, Milan.
Amina - Eva Lind (sop); Elvino - William Matteuzzi (ten); II Conte Rodolfo - Petteri Salamaa (bass);
Teresa - Sonia Ganassi (mez); Lisa - Stefania Donzelli (sop); Alessio - Roberto De Candia (bass)
Chorus of the Nationale Reisopera, East Netherlands.
Orchestra of Eastern Netherlands/Gabriele Bellini
Recorded Enschede, Netherlands, 1991
ARTS 47291-2 [75.59+63.50]

In May 1830 the Duke of Litta and two rich associates formed a society to sponsor opera at La Scala. They were concerned to raise the musical standards that had seen Rossini, Meyerbeer and others decamp to Paris. They engaged most of the famous singers of the time including Giuditta Pasta and the tenor Giovanni Battista Rubini. Donizetti and Bellini, as the two best active Italian composers, were each contracted to write an opera for the season to a libretto set by the renowned Felice Romani. Litta and his associates failed to secure La Scala for their plans, which were realised at the Teatro Carcano. The machinations of Litta in releasing Bellini from his existing contract, but failing to secure La Scala for his enterprise, as well as insights into the hectic life of composers whose works were not protected by copyright, are graphically described by Stelios Galatopoulos in his recent Bellini, Life, Times, Music (Sanctuary, 2002).

The rapid composition of I Capuletti e i Montecchi, completed in only 26 days, left the often-ailing Bellini in poor health. It was only later in 1830, after he had completed the libretto for Donizetti’s great success Anna Bolena that Romani commenced on a subject for Bellini. The chosen subject was Ernani, an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s sensational Hernani produced in Paris the previous February. Bellini set music for at least five scenes before it became apparent that with recent uprisings in France, Belgium and Poland that the Milan police censors would not allow it. The outcome was a total change to the politically innocuous subject of La Sonnambula based on Scribe’s ballet-pantomime. The plot concerns the young and innocent Amina who is about to be married to Elvino. Amina sleepwalks and ends up in the room of the local Count who recently returned to the village incognito. Elvino finds Amina in this compromised location and denounces her. Eventually he is convinced of her innocence when he sees her sleepwalking along a very narrow plank over a dangerous mill wheel.

The change of subject meant that Bellini did not start to compose La Sonnambula until January 2nd 1831 and the scheduled premiere was put back to March 6th. The opera was a resounding success with the composer’s maturing musical style being much admired. The work established Bellini firmly on the international stage much as had Anna Bolena for Donizetti; two outstanding successes for the Duke of Litta and his associates. Both successes owed much to the presence of Pasta and Rubini who had created the main roles in the two operas. Pasta had a most unusual voice. Stendahl in his ‘Vie de Rossini’ (1824) described it as extending from as low as bottom A and rising as high as C sharp or a slightly sharpened D. It was her dramatic interpretations as much as her range from contralto to high soprano that appealed to audiences. In our own time, only Callas has shown anything near the variety of vocal colour and dramatic gifts that were Pasta’s stock in trade. Callas’s early 1950s performances of Amina, Norma and Lucia, roles created by Pasta, contributed significantly to the re-emergence into the repertory of those, and other bel canto operas, which had lain neglected for many years.

Apart from Callas’s 1957 (EMI) recording, Amina has become the domain of light acrobatic voices. On record an early example was the light girlish sounding and limpid toned Lina Pagliughi in 1952 (Cetra). These sopranos have included Joan Sutherland on two recordings (Decca) and more recently Luba Organasova (Naxos) and Edita Gruberova (Nightingale). In this Arts recording, Eva Lind who has a very light and flexible voice with a slightly fluttery emission, sings Amina. She trills well and her coloratura is secure, but she does not have the variety of expression or vocal colour necessary to convey the varying emotions of the role and involve me in the unfolding drama.

Bellini is reputed to have been moved to tears by Pasta’s Ah! Non giunge (CD 2 tr. 12), Lind does not convey the agonies of Amina and fails to move me at all. The role of Elvino lies in the upper range of the light lyric, or leggiero, tenor voice and it has been suggested that Rubini, and certainly others who followed in that period, used a falsetto voice. Here the American William Matteuzzi sings the role. He is best known as a Rossini singer. In that fach, with its high flying fioritura, his dry tone is less obvious. Whilst as Elvino he has to scale the vocal heights via smooth transition through the passaggio into a clear head voice he also needs a steady legato and graceful phrasing to illuminate the flowing Bellinian cantilena. In the Cetra issue Tagliavini caresses many lines and phrases of the role in a sensitive and light head voice that I find particularly appealing. Matteuzzi moves from his slightly throaty and dry-toned chest voice into a smooth head voice in Prendi l’anel ti dono (CD 1 tr. 7). Elsewhere, but his tone does tend to spread when he puts pressure on the voice in its upper register. Nor are his scales smooth in the duet Elvino! E me tu lasci (CD 1 tr 12). As the returned incognito Count, Petteri Salamaa’s lean but well tuned bass voice is heard to good effect in the famous solo Vi ravviso (CD 1 tr. 9). His tone has a pleasing roundness even if he lacks the sonority of Siepi (Cetra) or the gravitas of Ghiaurov in Sutherlands second recording (Decca 1980 at full price). That being said I prefer Salamaa to the woolly toned bass on the Naxos recording. Of the minor parts it is a regret that the thin toned, not altogether steady, Lisa, is the first solo voice we hear (CD 1 tr. 2) rather than the fuller toned Sonia Ganassi as Teresa.

The recording is clear, airy and well balanced between orchestra and soloists. Gabrielle Bellini sometimes lingers over the lovely cantilena of his namesake and is also inclined to over indulge his soloists, failing to move the drama along. The opera is after all designated a melodrama. The booklet has a brief essay on the opera, a synopsis, regrettably not track related, and a full libretto in Italian but without any translation. At this price level it is a choice between the all-Italian cast on the Cetra issue in mono sound, this infinitely better modern stereo recording or the equally well recorded Naxos that also has weaknesses in singing and conducting. Neither of those two bargain priced modern recordings erases Callas or Sutherland from the memory. But then neither of those formidable divas was like Giuditta Pasta, who so inspired Bellini in his composition and moved him with her interpretation.

Despite its limitations, and particularly for those who do not know this work, or the other operas of Bellini, this issue could open the door on a highly enjoyable and fulfilling road of discovery.

Robert J Farr



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