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Vincenzo BELLINI (1801-1835)
La Sonnambula - Melodramma in two acts (1831)
Amina, an orphan brought up by Teresa - Ana Durlovski (soprano); Elvino, a rich young village landowner - Luciano Botelho (tenor); Il Conte Rodolfo, the local Lord of the Manor - Enzo Capuano (bass); Teresa, a mill owner and Amina’s foster-mother - Helene Schneiderman (mezzo); Lisa, an innkeeper in love with Elvino – Catriona Smith (soprano); Alessio, snubbed admirer of Lisa - Motti Kastón (baritone)
Chorus and State Orchestra Stuttgart/Gabriele Ferro
Stage Directors: Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito
Set and costume designer: Anna Veibrock
Sound Formats: 1081i Full HD. PCM Stereo. DTS HD Master Audio 5.1. Aspect ratio 16:9
Booklet languages: English, German, French
Subtitles: Italian (original language), English, German, French
EUROARTS Blu-ray 2059334 [156:00]

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. What with all the stresses associated with singers' temperaments, librettists' foibles and incessant travel now was the time to retire from writing for the stage. He was to live to the age of seventy-six and although he composed a couple of religious pieces and some songs that he titled "Sins of my old age", he did just that.

Rossini’s retirement left an opportunity for rivals of whom two, Gaetano Donizetti and Vincenzo Bellini, were pre-eminent. Donizetti, the elder by four years, was much more prolific than his younger rival who was constantly plagued by ill health. As I explain in the appendix to this review, the two were to provide an opera for a rather special season in Milan in the 1830-31. The competition drew masterpieces from both, that by Bellini being La Sonnambula, the composer’s seventh in the genre, whilst that by Donizetti, Anna Bolena, was his thirty first. The opportunity provided by Litta, along with the librettist and singers available, enabled both composers 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 "Hernani", produced in Paris the previous February, was scuppered by the censors with five scenes already set to music. This lead to 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, recently returned to the village incognito. Tipped off by Teresa, who also loves Elvino, Amina is found in this compromised location and is denounced. Eventually Elvino is convinced of her innocence and of the Count’s explanation of somnambulism, when he sees Amina sleepwalking along a very narrow plank over a dangerous mill-wheel.

In the recent video of a 2008 performance from Cagliari (review), I admired the naturalistic set and the singing of Eglise Gutiérrez as Amina and Simone Alaimo as the Count. I was significantly less enamoured of the tenor singing Elvino. This Stuttgart production was widely acclaimed at its premiere in 2012 and was voted Opera of the Year by the magazine 'Opernwelt' whilst Ana Durlovski won the German Theater Prize. The outcome was this reprise with only Germany, home of Regietheater and concept production, giving the clue as to the nature of what is on offer in respect of production. The producer writes an essay in the booklet, but I find it does little to clarify what is on stage or what is happening. The problems lie not merely in the updating of costume to the near present day. The setting is what I take to be a beer cellar with trestle tables and the stage becomes foreshortened when it becomes the inn’s bedroom that Teresa offers the Count before propositioning him. There is no horror of seeing Amina in danger as she crosses the river over the mill-wheel. She has merely entered the bedroom, via the window to become the object of the Count's desires. Perhaps with carnal purpose in mind there's a bottle of red wine in the room as a handy grooming tool. The contents turn out to facilitate the production of red stained bedding and the inference of Amina’s defloration. This is certainly not in the original. Incidentally, has nobody ever told producers that blood and wine are distinctly different in colour and stain? Then there is the female spectre that walks around from time to time, looking pale and haunted. Is this supposed to be Amina’s dead mother, she having been brought up by Teresa as a child? Then the way Ana Durlovski is required to play Amina as a psychotic served to confuse rather than enlighten. The final insult to my credibility was the costume Amina wears in act two: the skirt, two inches above the knee, cheap and tacky (CH.28). It made her look like a tart more likely to stand soliciting on a corner and getting little business than a confused young woman, psychiatric case or not.

As to the singing, well the acting is better. In these stakes Catriona Smith and Helene Schneiderman as Lisa and Teresa are outstanding albeit only a little above average as singers, both creating wonderful cameos. Smith plays Lisa as a real bitch who treats her would-be suitor, Alessio, quite callously. Luciano Botelho sings Elvino, the suitor of the orphaned Amina, who he is scheduled to marry before Lisa, fancying him herself, casts doubts in his mind as to Amina’s virtue. He sings out too strongly in act one with an edge to his flexible tenor but doesn’t have the voice to last him through the drama of act two where he becomes vocally strained and husky (CH.29). He could gainfully listen to Ferruccio Tagliavini in the 1952 Cetra issue (Warner Fonit 8573 87475-2) as to how to use the head voice in Predi: lanel ti dono (CH. 10 here) and to caress Bellini’s elegiac lines and word phrasing. As Count Rodolfo, Enzo Capuano looks a particularly distinguished old gentleman; he could be the Count rather than the absent son. Is there, in the entire goings-on, an imputation that he is Amina father? There are so many concepts around as to confuse Romani’s libretto altogether. However, Capuano’s Vi ravisso (CH.13) is well sung. As to Ana Durlovski’s Amina, it's very well acted and sung. An international star of the future in this repertoire? I have my doubts, but, aided by her acting she certainly shines here,. Musically Gabriele Ferro has the music in his bones and this is evident in his pacing and tempi. He brings cohesion to the ensembles and I at least could relate to his interpretation if not to that on stage.  

Robert J Farr

Appendix - Background to La Sonnambula

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 Rubini. 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 Romani. The latter was widely recognised as the best in the business. Litta and his associates failed to secure La Scala 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 in the new score. The details, as well as insights into the hectic life of composers at that time, and whose works were not protected by copyright, are graphically described by Stelios Galatopoulos in his "Bellini, Life, Times, Music" (Sanctuary 2002, p.187 et seq).

The rapid composition of I Capuletti e i Montecchi, his sixth opera, completed in only 26 days, had 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 in the Carcano season that Romani commenced work on a subject for Bellini. That chosen was 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 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 musical style being much admired. The work established Bellini firmly on the international stage much as Anna Bolena had done for Donizetti; two outstanding victories for the Duke of Litta and his associates.

Both 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. 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. Bellini demanded a high F from Rubini in the aria Credeasi, misera in his final opera I Puritani, premiered in Paris shortly before the composer’s premature death at age 34 in 1835. Juan Diego Florez perhaps matches his amazing range and ability to ping out high Cs and Ds in our day. Pavarotti on the Decca recording with Joan Sutherland tried a falsetto for that F. Enough said.

Robert J Farr

Previous review (DVD): John Sheppard (Recording of the Month)


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