La sonnambula: sleepingwalking to success

Article by Katharine Camiller

‘Oh, I never imagined that this flower would have died so soon!’. These words, taken from Amina’s aria in La sonnambula, are inscribed on the tomb of Vincenzo Bellini, who died in 1835 at the age of 33.  Yet within his short career, the Sicilian-born composer would produce works of such quality that his name would become inextricably linked with the other four Italian greats of the nineteenth century: Rossini, Donizetti, Verdi, and Puccini.  Bellini’s musical talent was recognisable from his early days: at the age of 5 he was a proficient pianist and at 6 he had begun composing.  By 1830, following years of study at the Naples Conservatory, he had become highly regarded amongst his contemporaries, and the success of his opera I Capuletti e I Montecchi led him to comment on 28 March 1830: ‘My style is now heard in the most important theatres in the world and is heard with the greatest enthusiasm’.  It is on the back of the success of I Capuletti e I Montecchi that he received a commission that autumn to compose a work for the Teatro Carcano in Milan, which would be performed after another specially commissioned new work by his rival, Donizetti (Anna Bolena), at the end of February 1831.  Bellini would work alongside the librettist Felice Romani, a lifelong friend and the most prolific librettist of his time (who incidentally, in 1832, would write the libretto for another work featured in Opera Holland Park’s 2005 Season: Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore).

It is this commission that would eventually lead to the composition of La sonnambula, although the work Bellini and Romani originally conceived was in fact an opera based on the story of Ernani (which Verdi would compose his own version of in 1844).  It wasn’t until December – just a few weeks before the premiere – that the two men abandoned Ernani and instead began work on La sonnambula.  Several theories surround this decision, some painting Bellini in a more favourable light than others.  One of the more cynical theories involves Donizetti, whose grand opera Anna Bolena met with great success at its premiere on 26 December 1830.  Comparisons between the two composers’ latest works were inevitable: both not only used the same librettist and the same theatre space, but the two operas would also share the same cast.  It is thought by some that Bellini was intensely jealous of Donizetti’s success to the point that he felt intimidated by the direct comparisons that would be drawn between himself and his successful rival, and feared that following Anna Bolena with another grand opera like Ernani could prove to be the nail in his compositional coffin.

As attractive as this theory is, it seems highly unlikely that this would have been the case as the announcement to drop Ernani in favour of La sonnambula came before the premiere of Donizetti’s work.  More plausible is the explanation that the composer himself gave, where he cites the political subtext of the plot and its inclusion of a conspiracy as reasons for abandoning the work, elements that would have riled the authorities because of the political climate at the time created by the Austrian occupation of Italy.  Far less likely to cause a storm was the pastoral story of a sleepwalking orphan.  Time was short, so composer and librettist worked frantically on the piece.  Romani based his libretto on a ballet-pantomime by Eugène Scribe and J.P. Aumer’s La somnambule, ou L’arrivée d’un nouveau seigneur, and had completed the text in time for Bellini to start work on the music on 2 January.  The date of the premiere had to be extended to the beginning of March, and Bellini, working at lightning speed, completed the second act in just 2 weeks, interweaving a section of the abandoned score of Ernani – the chorus ‘In Elvezia non v’ha rosa’ into the new work; fragments of the incomplete Ernani were also to emerge, incidentally, in Bellini’s next opera, Norma.

Finally, on 6 March 1831, La sonnambula was premiered at the Teatro Carcano.  Bellini and Romani’s hard work was rewarded: the piece was an instant success.  The star-studded cast certainly helped ensure the opera’s triumph, and included the bass Luciano Mariani (who had created the role of Oroe in Rossini’s Semiramide), the tenor Giovanni Battista Rubini (one of Bellini’s favourite singers – he tailor-made this role for him to show off his ‘mellifluous’ upper register), and the soprano Giuditta Pasta, an international superstar who was at the height of her fame.  In a letter to a friend Bellini spoke of the success of the opera at the premiere, and described how Rubini and Pasta performed like ‘two angels’. who had ‘aroused the public to the point of madness’.

La sonnambula represents a significant point in Bellini’s career.  Not only does it demonstrate his widespread appeal as a composer through its great success, but it also represents something of an anomaly in his oeuvre.  Other than his first opera Adelson e Gernando, a large, dramatic work composed for the Naples Conservatory as part of his final year as a student there, Bellini had composed exclusively in the tragic genre.  The rustic setting and subject of a falsely accused young woman who is eventually vindicated preclude La sonnambula from this genre, and instead it is often referred to as an opera semiseria.  Although unusual within the context of Bellini’s output, the theme of somnambulism was common topos in the nineteenth century theatre.  Other libretti based on this theme are Foppa’s La sonnambula (1800) for Paer, Romani’s Il sonnambulo (1824) for Carafa, Romani’s Amina (1824) for Rastrelli, and Ferretti’s Amina, ossia L’orfanella di Ginevra (1829) for Luigi Ricci.

Of all of Bellini’s operas, it is La sonnambula that is in fact considered to best reveal his character: the gracefulness, tenderness, and pathos of his melodic lines that appear in abundance in this opera are said to mirror his charming, almost effeminate, dandyish image.  Always well presented and dressed elegantly and in expensive clothes, a contemporary of his wrote: ‘His personality was like his melodies – it was captivating – just as charming as it was sympathetic’.  Indeed, one of the most characteristic aspects of his style was his treatment of the melodic line.  Verdi, who admired Bellini greatly, wrote in 1898: ‘There are extremely long melodies as no-one else had made before him’.  Examples of these melodic lines pervade the score of La sonnambula, for example in Amina’s Act 2, scene 2 aria ‘Ah! non credea mirarti’.  Equally, Bellini’s use of semitone intervals, which creates an intensely sentimental flavour, is another typical feature of his style.  This is demonstrated in the first duet between Amina and Elvino in Act 1, scene 1: ‘Son geloso del zefiro errante’.  In addition to reflecting his character, La sonnambula also represents a crystallisation of Bellini’s mature style because of its synthesis of poignant sentimentality, dramatic declamation, and coloratura.  He had finally shaken off the Rossinian shadow that had been a feature in his earlier career and had emerged as a bright, unique composer with an individual and recognisable style.  However, it is not only the music of this opera that has secured its success.  Credit must also be given to the staging of the final scene, the notoriously problematic ‘death-defying’. sleepwalking scene, one of the most famous pieces of staging in the first half off the nineteenth century.  In a plot with very little action, this scene teeters precariously over the rest, and provides a tense finale to the opera.  In modern editions of the libretto, the stage directions read: ‘Amina is seen coming out of a window of the mill; asleep she walks across the frail bridge over the water-wheel which turns quickly below her, threatening to crush her if she takes a false step’.  In the first production, however, Amina was shown sleepwalking across the eaves of the millhouse roof.  It wasn’t until 1848 that the idea of using a bridge across the mill-wheel was introduced, in a production starring Jenny Lind at Covent Garden.  How an opera company decides to stage this scene is always a great talking point, and of all the scenes performed on the Opera Holland park stage this summer, it is this one that arguably provides the biggest challenge of all.

There is no doubt that La sonnambula, though now often overshadowed by Bellini’s great masterpiece Norma, has had a lasting impact on the opera since its premiere.  Throughout the nineteenth century it was considered to be the epitome of the pastoral genre, alongside Donizetti’s Linda di Chamonix.  Its influence seeped into other art forms too, including George Eliot’s novel The Mill on the Floss, in which Philip Wakem reproaches Maggie Tulliver after she has rejected him, with Elvino’s cabaletta ‘Ah! perchè non posso odiarti’.  Death may not have been far off for the young composer, but as a reviewer of the premiere of La sonnambula wrote in L’Eco on 11 March 1831: ‘There is nothing more to say about Bellini, except that every opera he has so far written has taken him a step forward to glory’.