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Vincenzo BELLINI (1801-1835)
La Sonnambula

Melodramma in two acts
(2004 Critical Edition by Alessandro Roccataglia and Luca Zappelli)
an orphan brought up by Teresa -
Cecilia Bartoli (mezzo); Elvino,
a rich young village landowner -
Juan Diego Florez (tenor); Il Conte Rodolfo, the local Lord of the Manor -
Ildebrando D’Arcangelo (bass); Teresa,
a mill-owner and Amina’s foster-mother -
Liliana Nikitenau (mezzo); Lisa,
an innkeeper in love with Elvino - Gemma Bertagnolli (soprano); Alessio, Peter Kálman (bass)
Chorus of Zurich Opera House; Orchestra La Scintilla/Alessandro De Marchi
rec. June-July 2007, September 2008, Evangelisch-Reformierte Kirchemeinde Zurich-Oberstrass. DDD
DECCA 478 1087 DH02 Limited Edition [59:10 + 75:01]
Experience Classicsonline


The hype on the box and the parallel advertisements for this issue, make a lot of statements and claims. First that it is the first recording collaboration of Cecilia Bartoli and Juan Diego Florez. That is undeniable, although there was talk for a time of collaboration in a possible recording of Rossini’s La gazza ladra (The Thieving Magpie). Such talk may have been more hope than expectation, albeit a studio recording of that work is badly needed. Further claims include being the first recording of this opera with period instruments, the first using the Critical Edition by Alessandro Roccataglia and Luca Zappelli and the first with a mezzo-soprano as Amina. The 2007 recording with Natalie Dessay conducted by Evelino Pido uses the same critical edition (see review). There are, however, very slight textual distinctions between the two as well as different tempi and the use of period instruments and their tuning to A=430.

It is true that this is the first recording with a mezzo as Amina. However, Bartoli has in the past sung the distinctly soprano roles of Susanna in Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro and the even lighter soprano role of Zerlina in Don Giovanni. In a brief note in the book format presentation of the two CDs (p.17) under an essay titled ‘The Myth of the Malibran Version’ the author notes that La Sonnambula was written specifically for Giuditta Pasta and later adopted as a calling card by Maria Malibran. Both had timbres and strength in the lower voice and we would now know them as mezzo-sopranos.

Pasta, the creator of the role of Amina 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. Malibran sang the role in English in London where Bellini became infatuated by her singing and personality. I have heard Bartoli in one of her concert tours (see review) and she has a phenomenal range similar to those of her two illustrious predecessors.

Given the quite different ambience they give, the question arises as to the reasons for the downward transpositions adopted in the Critical Edition used here. Some answers may be gleaned from the circumstances and casting of the first performances. 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. Donizetti and Bellini, whom they considered to be 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. They engaged most of the famous singers of the time including Pasta and particularly the tenor Giovanni Battista Rubini who, like his colleague, was also renowned for his vocal range, only more so! It was for Rubini that Bellini wrote the tenor role in I Puritani with not only high Ds but also the high F in the last scene aria Credeasa misera. Whilst Florez is renowned for his capacity to ping out the nine high Cs in Tonio’s aria Ah! mes amis, near the end of the first act of Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment, and then encore it, he did not include Credeasa misera in his Decca CD titled Arias for Rubini. In a note to that issue, Florez writes that Rubini, by means of a head voice, or falsetto went up to high F and G! Although Florez doesn't sing those extreme notes, the aria from Donizetti's Marino Faliero on the CD includes his first public high E flat. Florez has no trouble with the one high D in this score (CD2 tr.14) the voice coming over with clarity and tonal elegance. It is that pristine quality and elegance that mark him out as special, and which are in evidence throughout this recording in his singing and characterisation.

Despite all the foregoing about high notes and the soloists in this recording, it is in the overall tessitura that La Sonnambula makes the most demands on the singers. This is accentuated by the practice of casting Amina as a high coloratura. The downward transpositions in the Critical Edition relate to the three duets between Elvino and Amina. The first is in act one, starting with Elvino’s cavatina Prendi: l’anel ti dono and continues with Ah! vorrei trovar parola when they are joined by Teresa, Alessio and Lisa (CD 1 trs.10-11) leading to the conclusion of the act with Elvino! E me tu lasci (trs.17-19). In act two it is the extended end to the first scene when Elvino believes Amina unfaithful, and despite her pleas, he takes her ring (CD 2 trs.12-14). In an interesting analysis of the transpositions in this opera, Philip Gossett in his book Divas and Scholars (University of Chicago, 2006) recounts their relationship with Rubini and a proposed Metropolitan production with Bartoli in 2000 (pp.353-358). He also discusses the difficulties of reconciling contemporary printed editions and manuscripts.

As far as this performance is concerned, the consequences of the original instrument pitch and the transpositions means that Florez can accommodate more tone and voice in the cavatina and duets. Compare the results with those of say Tagliavini in the Cetra recording (Warner Fonit 8573 87475-2) where the latter’s necessary use of head voice verges on a croon. The benefits of Florez’s greater and fuller tone are in characterisation as well as extension as he decorates the line. Bartoli is the queen de nos jours of florid vocal decorations among current mezzos. The ease with which she accomplishes them is astounding. They do not always contribute to the flow and understanding of the story, but are typical of the practice in Bellini’s day and immediately after. They can be overdone, and I am reminded of the perhaps apocryphal story about Rossini being asked if he had enjoyed the performance of one of his operas the previous evening. His response was along the lines of: yes, in those parts I recognised as mine. Divas of the time not only added their own decorations to a composer’s music, but even substituted arias by other composers if they felt those available did not allow them to demonstrate their vocal prowess to the full. In this recording I suggest they merely add to the enjoyment.

The lower pitch throughout, along with Bartoli’s basic vocal timbre, allow Amina’s emotions to come across. They do this with more sincerity and greater depth than is often the case in previous recordings that have, hitherto, dominated the catalogue. Those previous recordings feature light lyric coloratura sopranos. This is particularly so in the sleepwalking scene (CD 2 trs.22-24). With evidence of these vocal transpositions it may be that major opera houses might consider mounting the work for Bartoli after hearing this recording. Her singing, alongside Florez’s plangent tone, with its unconstricted and free upper extension, is a near ideal combination. Ildebrando D’Arcangelo is a characterful Count Rodolfo without erasing memories of more sonorous basses in Vi ravisso (CD 1 tr.13). Gemma Bertagnolli is a strong Lisa (CD 1 tr.3-4) with Liliana Nikitenau as Teresa and Peter Kálman as Alessio being fully involved. The chorus makes a vibrant contribution whilst the period orchestral tone adds warmth and textual clarity as well as atmosphere under Alessandro De Marchi’s well-paced and idiomatic baton.

Political unrest in France, Belgium and Poland meant that the Milan police censors would not allow the composer and librettists their first choice of subject, even though some music had already been composed. Some have condemned as bland the deliberately politically innocuous subject of La Sonnambula. It may lack dramatic impetus when the role of Amina is reduced to vocal display. In this recording, thanks to the soloists and conductor, it manages to come over as I suspect Bellini and Romani intended, as a mini-drama with a happy ending. I have enjoyed the performance immensely and will return to it. It has also given me new perspectives on the work.
Robert J Farr


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