By Lynne Gray, PhD
Please note this is available at www.metopera.org
Friday, May 29
Bellini’s La Sonnambula (Viewer’s Choice) ~ 2Hrs. & 22Mins.
Conducted by Evelino Pidò, starring Natalie Dessay and Juan Diego Flórez. Transmitted live on March 21, 2009.
This week’s Viewers’ Choice selection features the inimitable pair of Natalie Dessay and Juan Diego Flórez in another bel canto masterpiece (we loved them in Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment), this time by Bellini. It is particularly famous for its extended sleepwalking scene that allows the diva du jour a delicious opportunity to pull out all the vocal and dramatic stops. The musical fireworks are balanced by plenty of delicious lyricism from the lovers – in gorgeous combinations that Bellini could do like no other composer.
The fascination with sleepwalking in the mid-1800’s was rooted in the Romantic era’s newfound obsession with hallucinations, dreams, hypnotism, trances, and madness. At the time, madness was considered an essentially female affliction (surprise) and in Europe’s cultural imagination was often linked with female sexuality (are you remembering that the word ‘hysterical’ comes from the Greek ‘hysterika’ and Latin ‘hystericus’ meaning uterus!). Onstage – in dramas, operas and even ballets – when a woman lost her love, she often lost her mind as well. Many bel canto operas end with a mad scene, in which the heroine comes unhinged, unleashes torrents of coloratura, and then dies in agony – or in an ecstatic trance (even Wagner’s Isolde did that). Like female hysteria, sleepwalking had risqué connotations – it titillated the imaginations of audiences to think of vulnerable young women not in control of themselves.
The young woman in this story is about to marry her sweetheart, but she is discovered—by the entire village, to say nothing of her fiancé — asleep in the bedroom of a stranger. It takes her young man two entire acts to figure out (with lots of help) that sleepwalking is to blame and that she is innocent. Natalie Dessay as Amina and Juan Diego Flórez as Elvino deliver their usual bel canto magic in Mary Zimmerman’s production. The Tony award-winning Broadway director has moved Bellini’s usually bucolic tale to a large rehearsal hall in contemporary New York, where an opera company is working on La Sonnambula—and where the singers are truly in love with each other.
So, this opera begins unusually, with marriage preparations for our hero and heroine already underway. Only Lisa, the practical local innkeeper is not happy – Elvino was once engaged to her, and even though she is now courted by Alessio, she is still put out about it. Amidst the celebration – and the arias that introduce us to each main character, including Teresa, the mill owner who adopted Amina as a child – a stranger arrives. He is a stranger, however, who seems to be unexplainably familiar with the village. When Lisa tells him he cannot get to his destination – the castle – before nightfall, he agrees to stay the night at her inn.
The stranger is actually Rodolfo, the lost heir of their former count, and (to himself) declares his love for the place he has not seen in years, “Vi ravviso, o luoghi ameni” (I recognize you, oh friendly places). He reminisces on the days of his youth when all was tranquil and serene, and on the beauty of his first love – you guessed it – Amina. He regrets that he will never be able to experience those days again, but then noticing Amina, he is struck by her resemblance to the great love of his youth.
As night falls, the villagers grow nervous and we learn that a ghost haunts the town. Amused, the stranger says he’d like to see the ghost, and then departs, followed by the villagers. Alone, Elvino and Amina quarrel over the stranger’s attentions to her, but Elvino soon apologizes for his jealousy “Son geloso del zeffiro errante” (Pardon! I’m jealous of the wayward zephyr).
Meanwhile at the inn, Lisa has finally figured out that the stranger is, indeed Rodolfo, the young count and the two of them flirt. When they hear a noise, Lisa hides in the closet but drops her handkerchief as she does. Amina enters – she is sleepwalking – and immediately Rodolfo recognizes that she must be the village “ghost.” Lisa (from her closet), however, angrily assumes Amina has come to meet Rodolfo as a lover and quietly slips away. Rodolfo is moved by Amina’s (unconscious) expressions of love for Elvino and so he also quietly leaves – with Amina innocently asleep on his bed. Of course, the curious townsfolk, wanting a better look at the stranger, choose that time to come sneaking into the inn and find Amina on the stranger’s bed. They are quickly followed by Lisa, who has brought Teresa and Elvino to witness Amina’s unfaithfulness.
Awakened by the commotion around her, Amina protests her innocence, “D’un pensiero e d’un accento, Rea non son.” (I’ve never had a thought or hint -of unfaithfulness- I am not guilty!) But she is believed by no one. Elvino angrily calls off the wedding and there is chaos – except that Teresa spots, and retrieves, Lisa’s handkerchief.
As Act II begins, the villagers have calmed down and decide to go to Rodolfo’s castle to confront him. Meanwhile, the still angry Elvino again reproaches the distraught Amina and takes his ring from her. The villagers return saying Rodolfo has confirmed Amina’s innocence and is on his way to straighten things out. The stubborn Elvino, however, declares he will not see his “rival” and leaves despairing “Ah! Perché non posso odiarti, infedel, com’io vorrei!” (Why cannot I despise you, faithless, as I believe you are?)
In Scene 2, the villagers are assembled again and Elvino declares he will marry Lisa despite Rodolfo’s assurances of Amina’s innocence. Teresa is shocked, and Lisa declares that SHE was not found in another man’s room – at which point Teresa produces her handkerchief and Elvino begins to waver. Rodolfo tries to explain sleep walking to the villagers and Teresa asks for silence since Amina has finally just fallen asleep in the mill from exhaustion.
But at that moment, Amina appears high above them on the mill’s treacherous bridge. She is sleepwalking, and delivers her famous aria, mourning the loss of Elvino while clutching the flowers he gave her, Ah! non credea mirarti / sì presto estinto, o fiore” (I had not thought I would see you, dear flowers, perished so soon). You might not be able to tell from the picture above, but the Met has created a thin platform that extends out more than a dozen feet over almost the entire orchestra pit – which is truly genuinely frightening! With the townspeople all holding their breaths afraid she will fall to her death, Amina finally reaches the other side, falls into the repentant Elvino’s arms, wakes up and all sing the joyous finale with Amina – Ah! non giunge uman pensiero / al contento ond’io son piena” (Human thought cannot conceive of the happiness that fills me.)
1. Natalie Dessay as Amina in Bellini’s “La Sonnambula” at the Met. Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.
2. Juan Diego Flórez as Elvino and Natalie Dessay as Amina in Bellini’s “La Sonnambula” at the Met. Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.
3. Juan Diego Flórez as Elvino and Natalie Dessay as Amina in Bellini’s “La Sonnambula.”
Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.
4. Natalie Dessay as the sleepwalking, Amina, suspended over the huge Met orchestra pit in Bellini’s “La Sonnambula.” Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.