By Sigurd Neubauer
The world of opera can be a wonderful place. If you’re new to it, finding the “right” opera will be of outmost importance if you aspire to better understand the artform and over time develop a passion for it. Not all operas are created equal, of course. Simply being introduced to the “wrong” opera on your first outing can deter the best intentioned among us from ever returning.
But with a little bit of preparation, this beautiful world is accessible to anyone interested.
Vincenzo Bellini’s (1801-1835) La Sonnambula is one of the most beautiful operas ever composed, although its story is somewhat implausible. It is about a young woman, Amina, who suffers from sleepwalking, which puts her romance with Elvino in jeopardy.
The libretto, written by Felice Romani, is set to a Swiss village. It premiered on March 6, 1831, at Teatro Carcano, Milan, Italy.
In the conservative Swiss village, Amina’s marriage to Elvino is on track, but first she must fend off rival Lisa – who was once engaged to Elvino herself – before Count Rodolfo’s return complicates everything.
With a little bit of preparation, the beautiful world of opera can be accessible to anyone interested
Because of Amina’s sleepwalking habits, she ends up in the bed of the Count – who is staying overnight at the county inn where Lisa, her rival, is the innkeeper. Discovered by villagers in the morning, Amina’s fidelity to Elvino is immediately questioned but the benevolent Count comes to her defense.
The phrase from Amina’s aria, Ah! non credea mirarti / Sì presto estinto, o fiore (I did not believe you would fade so soon, oh flower), is inscribed on Bellini’s tomb in the Catania Cathedral in Sicily, Italy.
Her innocence is ultimately proven, and the two-act opera ends happily with Amina and Elvino rushing off to Church to get married.
La Sonnambula (the sleepwalker) represents the very best of what is known as the operatic genre of Bel Canto, which was revitalized by Maria Callas (1923-1977) in the 1950s. (Here’s our profile of Callas’ legacy and tragic life). Callas’ 1957 recording of La Sonnambula stands out as a classic in its own right.
One of the most outstanding contemporary interpreters of Bellini is Natalie Dessay, whose artistic joie de vivre is matched by her outstanding vocal cords, brought the modern Amina to life at the Metropolitan Opera in 2009. Mary Zimmerman’s production, which takes place in a rehearsal room in contemporary New York City, is highly recommended.
Bel canto, – which means beautiful singing in Italian – had long been forgotten by the time Callas took the world by storm in the early 1950s. Its principal composers are Vincenzo Bellini, Gaetano Donizetti, Gioachino Rossini and Luigi Cherubini.
Bel canto opera continues to be performed – and celebrated – at all of the leading opera houses in Europe and the United States.
La Sonnambula’s Count Rodolfo represents aristocratic grace and benevolence. He rescues Amina from mob justice and from her vengeful fiancé, Elvino. But all that is good, ends well.
Bellini’s La Sonnambula is arguably the most beautiful opera of them all.
Ah! non credea mirarti / Sì presto estinto, o fiore (I did not believe you would fade so soon, oh flower), is inscribed on Bellini’s tomb in the Catania Cathedral in Sicily, Italy
La Sonnambula is also a good place to start for those interested in opera as it won’t throw you off-balance nor will it cater to any of the negative stereotypes you may have heard about the artform.
La Sonnambula's Count Rodolfo represents aristocratic grace and benevolence. He rescues Amina from mob justice and her vengeful fiancé, Elvino