Many opera-lovers will know, particularly from Mozart’s experience with Don Giovanni
and The Marriage of Figaro
, that it was vitally necessary for a composer to know the vocal range, tonal quality and dramatic capabilities of the singers contracted by a theatre before
he started composing music for the agreed libretto. He had to make changes to both operas when they were revived in Vienna with different casts from the premiere. By the time of the bel canto
period, presumed to start with Rossini’s compositions around 1810 and followed by Donizetti and Bellini in particular, these matters were paramount. This was no more so than in 1830 when The Duke of Litta and two rich associates formed a Society to sponsor the next opera season at La Scala. They were concerned to raise the musical standards that had seen Rossini, Meyerbeer and others decamp to Paris. They engaged some of the most famous singers of the time including Giuditta Pasta and the tenor Rubini.
Donizetti and Bellini, whom Litta 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 Romani, widely recognised as the best in the business. However, Litta and his associates failed to secure the La Scala franchise for their plans, which were realised at the Teatro Carcano. Litta bought Bellini's release from his existing contract 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.
With the fragile Bellini suffering another bout of illness after the rapid composition of I Capuletti e i Montecchi
, completed in only 26 days, the often-ailing Catanian composer was left in poor health. Consequently Donizetti was first up with the premiere of Anna Bolena
, which opened the Carnival Season on 26 December with Pasta in the eponymous role and Rubini as Riccardo Percy. It was Donizetti’s thirty-first opera and a resounding success. After some delay, Romani commenced on a subject for Bellini. The choice involved 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 political unrest in France, Belgium and Poland 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. Tipped off by Lisa who loves him, Elvino finds Amina in this compromised location and denounces her, not accepting the Count’s account of somnambulism. However, he is convinced of her innocence when he sees her sleepwalking in a life-threatening situation 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 1831 and the scheduled premiere was put back to 6 March. The opera was a resounding success with the composer's
evolving lyrical musical style and flowing cantilena
being much admired. The work established Bellini firmly on the international stage much as Anna Bolena
had done for Donizetti; two outstanding successes for the Duke of Litta and his associates. Each owed much to the presence of Giuditta Pasta and Rubini who had created the main roles in the two operas.
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. She was no coloratura canary with thin tone, albeit her fuller voice was admirably flexible. Likewise, Bellini’s writing for Rubini indicates his range when he demanded spectacular vocal athleticism from the tenor in his later I Puritani,
including a top D flat followed a few bars later by a top F. In La Sonnambula
a series of
top Cs is the limit, although the tessitura remains demandingly high throughout.
Before considering the singing in this performance a word about the production. There are brief references in the accompanying leaflet about its relationship with a production at the Verona Festival in 1995 including the name of Visconti. Despite some searches I cannot trace this. I hardly relate La Sonnambula
with the grand stagings at Verona. However, I have to say that the set and lighting is utterly captivating, depicting a rural idyll with the addition of imaginative video projections and lighting. Notable are the atmospheric and highly effective visual effects as Amina walks the mill wheel. Also effective and imaginative is the change from the open countryside to Count Walter’s room at the inn into which the sleep-walking Amina enters, thus compromising herself, albeit the Count acts most respectably as befits a gentleman. Later, he must have put his scruples to one side with the innkeeper Lisa. The local population look rather too well dressed for country folk, but their very welcome in period attire could be deemed suitable for a wedding.
In the role of Amina, created by Pasta, the Cuban Eglise Gutierrez is quite superb. I admired her singing in Opera Rara’s 2009 recording of Donizetti’s Linda di Chamonix,
) suggesting her performance to be commendable for a young singer and to give promise of a considerable career in this repertoire. At that time I little realised how far she had already travelled and was already signed up by Covent Garden and other major houses in exactly this repertoire including a revival of La Sonnambula.
is no tweeting canary voice, having a full, warm and womanly tone that extends with evenness, purity and flexibility into the highest range. Add her sincere acting and capacity for vocal characterisation and her presence in works of this genre are something to look forward to. Eglise Gutierrez’s vocal contribution to the finale, as first Amina safely descends from the mill wheel and reunites with Elvino, again as his betrothed, is wonderfully achieved with the succeeding celebration of her joy finishing with a ravishing diminuendo (CH.21). Of the other women the singing of Sandra Pastrana as Lisa has little virtue whilst her acting is desperately in need of directorial involvement in the opening of the opera. As Amina’s stepmother Gabriella Colecchia creates a sympathetic character and sings adequately.
As Elvino, Amina’s suitor and betrothed, I found Antonio Siragusa something of a trial. He has the vocal range, but with a very hard edge to his tone which often sounds dry and harsh. When he sings softly, as in Prendi l’anel to dono
(CH.5) there is some honey in the voice, but under pressure as the tessitura rises his sound is bleaty and coarse and a considerable drawback to my enjoyment of this staging and performance. I ended up wishing that Count Walter, in the portly figure of the bass Simone Alaimo, had much more vocal involvement in act two after his steady Vi ravviso
(CH.6). As Alessio, suitor of Lisa, Gabriele Nani is adequate and acts his small part well.
On the rostrum Maurizio Benini is masterful in his choice of tempi and support of his singers whilst the vibrancy and acted involvement of the Chorus of the Teatro Lirico di Cagliari is also welcome.
Robert J Farr
Lovely sets and a wonderfully sung Amina by Eglise Gutierrez are marred by vocal weakness elsewhere.
See also review of DVD release by David Bennett