In May 1830 the
Duke of Litta and two rich associates formed a Society to sponsor
opera at La Scala, Milan. 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, whom they considered to be the best active
Italian composers, were each contracted to write an opera for
the season. This was to be to a libretto set by the renowned
Felice Romani. However, Litta and his associates failed to secure
La Scala for their plans, which were instead 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 are graphically described by Stelios Galatopoulos
in his 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
Bellini project. 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, with political unrest 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 has 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 2 January 1831 and the scheduled premiere was put
back to 6 March. The opera was a resounding success with the
composer’s evolving musical style being much admired. It 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.
Pasta had a most unusual voice. Stendhal 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,
perhaps only Callas has shown anything near the variety of vocal
colour and dramatic gifts that were Pasta’s stock in trade.
Apart from Callas’s
1957 (EMI) recording of the role, Amina has become the domain
of light acrobatic voices. An early example on record was the
naturally light and girlish sounding Lina Pagliughi in 1952
(Warner Fonit 8573 87475-2). These sopranos have also included
Joan Sutherland on two recordings (Decca 448 966-2 and 417 424-2)
and more recently Luba Orgonasova (Naxos 8.660042-43), Edita
Gruberova (Nightingale) and the fluttery Eva Lind on Arts (review).
Of these sopranos Orgonasova and Sutherland have the richest
tone and like Gruberova are secure in the coloratura.
This recording differs
from those mentioned in using a new Critical Edition by Alessandro
Roccataglia and Luca Zappelli and published by Ricordi in collaboration
with the Teatro Massimo Bellini in Catania. It lowers the key
in several numbers compared with more traditional performing
edition, particularly in Elvino’s cavatina Prendi, l’anel
ti dono (CD 1 tr.8) and the duet for the two lovers
Vedi o madre (CD 2 tr.4). Although longer, by some ten minutes,
than the standard performing edition of the time on the Warner
Fonit recording, it is also shorter than Sutherland’s second
recording by a similar amount.
On this recording
the French coloratura soprano Natalie Dessay is easy on the
ear with her light, rather white, limpid tone. She phrases the
Bellinian line with some grace and her diction is good. Her
most expressive moments come at the very end in Ah! Non giunge
(CD 2 tr.13) as Amina is filled with joy and where Dessay finds
more tonal colour. Overall there is a greater range of colour
in the lower part of her voice whilst she exhibits a slight
tendency to thinning at the top in the highest tessitura. In
general she is better seen on-stage as a committed singing actress
rather than as a voice on a recording.
Previously the role
of Elvino lay in the upper range of the light lyric, or leggiero,
tenor voice. It has been suggested that Rubini, and certainly
others who followed in that period and later, used a falsetto
voice. Tagliavini on Warner Fonit uses head voice to the point
of a croon. Like Gimenez on the Naxos and William Matteuzzi
on Arts, Francesco Meli has been known as a Rossini singer.
He appears in the composer’s Bianca e Falliero from Pesaro
in 2005, on CD
in Torvaldo e Dorliska from the 2006 festival and also
recorded on CD
both operas recorded by the Italian label Dynamic.
In a profile and
interview for France’s Opéra magazine between those two years,
Meli indicated his wish to move towards the lyric tenor fach.
I felt this to be wise as he lacks the free top of voice required
for the ideal Rossini tenor. There are a couple of occasions
on this recording where that tightness shows. What he had at
that time, and exhibits here, is a pleasing light tenor tone
with a touch of metal. He adds to this a capacity for sensitive
phrasing, good legato and willingness to use the mezza voce.
All these skills, allied with a capacity for expression and
characterisation, combine to bring the role to life.
As the returned
incognito Count, Carlo Columbara is sonorous but not lugubrious.
His well tuned bass voice is heard to good effect in the famous
solo Vi ravviso (CD 1 tr.11). The minor parts are more
than adequately sung, the chorus are vibrant and idiomatic and
Evelino Pido brings a nice touch to both rhythmic pointing and
Bellinian cantilena. The recording is clear, airy and well balanced
between orchestra and soloists.
Robert J Farr