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Vincenzo BELLINI (1801-1835) La Sonnambula- Melodramma in two acts (1831)
Amina - Jessica Pratt (soprano); Elvino - Shalva Mukeria (tenor); Il Conte Rodolfo - Giovanni Batista Parodi (bass); Teresa - Julie Mellor (mezzo); Lisa - Anna Viola (soprano); Alessio - Dario Ciotoli (bass)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro La Fenice, Venice/Gabriele Ferro
rec. April 2012
Director: Bepi Morassi; Set Designer: Massimo Checchetto; Costume Designer: Carlos Tieppo
Video Director: Tiziano Mancini
Sound Formats: PCM stereo. DTS 5.1; Picture Format: filmed in HD. Aspect ratio 16: 9
Subtitles: Italian (original language), English, German, French, Spanish, Chinese, Korean
Also available on Blu-ray C MAJOR 713908
On 3 August 1829 Gioachino Rossini, widely recognised as the greatest composer of opera at that date, presented his Guillaume Tell in Paris. It was his thirty-ninth opera. At age thirty-seven he decided that he had had enough of opera composition and all its stresses of travel, of singers’ temperaments and librettists’ foibles and would retire from writing. He was to live to the age of seventy-six. Although composing a couple of religious pieces and some songs that he titled “Sins of my old age”, he did just that.
In Rossini’s native Italy plans were afoot to raise the standard of opera production that had seen him, among others, decamp to Paris. With that aim in mind, and with the franchise to La Scala in Milan due to be available, the Duke of Litta and two rich associates formed a Society to sponsor opera there. They engaged several of the famous singers of the time including Giuditta Pasta and the tenor Rubini. 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. Giovanni Battista Rubini, like his colleague was also famous for his vocal range especially the top of his voice, 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. As was the practice, any composer writing for these singers would have these vocal qualities at the forefront of his mind.
To provide librettos for the season Litta employed Felice Romani, widely regarded as the best in the business, albeit renowned for a tendency to be dilatory in delivery of the goods. Litta considered Donizetti and Bellini the best two active Italian composers and each was contracted to write an opera for the season to a libretto by Romani. In the event the group did not win the Scala franchise and their intentions were realised at the Teatro Carcano. They also had to buy out Donizetti’s contract from La Scala for 1500 francs. Aware of this, the composer pushed up his own fee to twice that which La Scala would have paid him as well as having half the property of the new score.
The opportunity provided by Litta enabled both Donizetti with his Anna Bolena and Bellini with his, La Sonnambula to hit the big time at home and also become established in countries outside Italy.
Bellini’s original choice of subject, an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s sensational Ernani produced in Paris the previous February was scuppered by the censors with five scenes already set to music. This lead to a total change of subject 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, recently returned to the village incognito. Tipped off by Teresa, who also loves Elvino, he finds Amina in this compromised location and denounces her. Eventually he is convinced of her innocence, and the count’s explanation of somnambulism, when he sees Amina sleepwalking along a very narrow plank over a dangerous mill wheel.
In a recent video of a 2008 performance from Cagliari (see review), I admired the naturalistic set and the singing of Eglise Gutierrez as Amina and of Simone Alaimo as the count. Regrettably, I was less enamoured of the tenor singing Elvino. The initial setting of this issue, comprising the terrace of a mountain top hotel with a background of snow-clad hills, did not fill me with hope. Yet another updated producer concept production, I thought. A funicular arrives and later a 1930s or 1940s charabanc. Costumes are of the same period.
The scene played out in the count’s hotel bedroom is a little more lurid than usual as he succumbs to Lisa’s non-too subtle proposition, removes her blouse and lays her on the bed before being disturbed. The blouse, rather than the more benign handkerchief denoted by the words, is later Lisa’s undoing as she prepares to marry Elvino. He has given up Amina, believing she had been up to no good, rather than merely sleepwalking, in the same bedroom. Other scenes are naturalistic in setting, with snow-covered pine trees and a very posh dining room set for the wedding of Lisa and Elvino. Whilst there are one or two visual incongruities between the words and what we see, they are minor and nothing like some examples when swords are referred to and Armalites appear. At the end, I felt that director, Bepi Morassi and set designer, Massimo Checchetto had done a good job. This is not, after all, an easy score to bring off in today’s sophisticated world.
As Amina, Venice cast British-born Jessica Pratt who has been making waves in the high tessitura bel canto roles, particularly in Italy including ay the Pesaro Rossini Festival. I heard her in the title role of Armida in 2010, the last year Garsington Opera appeared at the eponymous Manor (see review). Tall, with long blond hair or wig and a peaches and cream complexion, she certainly looks the part. Equally certainly she lacks Pasta’s lower range, but is spectacularly secure and pure above the stave. She is not frightened to give the vocal pyrotechnics her all when the opportunity arrives, including in Ah! Non giunge unam pensiero at the end of the opera (CH.40). Her lack of mid-range vocal colour restricts her sung characterisation. This is not a problem with Georgian tenor Shalva Mukeria’s appealingly sung Elvino. He has many of the virtues so lacking in Antonio Siragusa in the Cagliari production. He also lacks some mid-range capacity for vocal characterisation and colour although there are some moments of pleasingly heady mezza voce. All that said, the duet between Amina and Elvino, Elvino E me tu lasci … Son Geloso del zefiro errante (CHs. 18-19), in act one, is a delight, particularly their singing in unison. Similarly their duet Ah! non credea mirati (CH.38) draws the only interruption for applause, for Amina and Elvino’s reconciliation as much as for their singing perhaps. Giovanni Batista Parodi is disappointing as Count Rodolfo after Simone Alaimo; his singing of Vi ravviso (CH.13) lacks steady sonority allied to tonal gruffness. The Lisa of Anna Viola is thin-toned whilst Julie Mellor as Amina’s stepmother is vocally inadequate. As Alessio, suitor of Lisa, Dario Ciotoli just about passes muster as long as his hat conceals his bald patch. On the rostrum Gabriele Ferro fails to light any real flames of musical passion, often being over-indulgent and languorous with tempi. All too often Bellini’s elegiac melodic cantilena goes for nothing.
After their great success in Litta’s 1830 season in Milan, Donizetti and Bellini would each later decamp to Paris towards the end of their careers. In Bellini’s case this was regrettably short as his fragile constitution, that had so limited his productivity, caught up with him in his thirty-fifth year. He died in Paris with a mere ten operas to his name. It was the same year that Donizetti hit even greater acclaim in Naples with his Lucia di Lammermoor, a success that opened the Paris door to him.