Major Operas | La sonnambula by Vincenzo Bellini | Early Romantic

The Sleepwalker

Vincenzo Bellini’s two-act opera La sonnambula, which had a pastoral background, was first produced at the Teatro Carcano in Milan on 6 March 1831. The story derived from a comédie-vaudeville of 1819 and a ballet-pantomime of 1827, both part-written by the French dramatist Eugène Scribe.

The title role, Amina, was created by Giuditta Pasta (1797–1865) who, though essentially a mezzo-soprano, performed brilliantly in the soprano range. Pasta was regarded as the greatest tragic singing actress of her day.

Subsequently, Her Majesty’s Theatre in London, where the opera was performed in 1833, was the scene of one of the most talked-about stage effects of the early nineteenth century: a virtual high-wire act in which the sleepwalking Amina crossed the eaves of the mill-house roof, several feet above the characters watching in horror on the stage below. The bridge, it seems, was the idea of the Swedish soprano Jenny Lind (1820–87) who sang the role of Amina at Her Majesty’s. When La sonnambula premiered in New York in 1835, the role was sung by the Scottish soprano Mary Ann Paton, a beautiful singer, but one who acted her parts ‘like an inspired idiot’, as one observer put it.

Composed: 1831
Premiered: 1831, Milan
Libretto by Felice Romani, after Eugène Scribe

Act I

The villagers celebrate the approaching wedding of Amina and Elvino, with the exception of Lisa, the innkeeper and Elvino’s former lover. Consumed by jealousy, she rejects the advances of her new admirer, Alessio. Amina gives thanks to all of her friends, in particular Teresa, who owns the mill and who raised the orphaned Amina as her own child. Elvino returns from praying at his mother’s grave and presents Amina with a ring, which belonged to his mother.

A stranger arrives in the village, with a curiously detailed knowledge of the local area. Unbeknownst to the villagers, he is in fact Count Rodolfo, the long-lost son of the recently deceased count, returning home. He shows a marked interest in Amina, much to Elvino’s displeasure. Teresa and the villagers warn the stranger of a phantom who haunts the village by night. Realizing that the castle is a long way off, he agrees to stay at Lisa’s inn. Amina assures a piqued Elvino that he has no need to be jealous.

Lisa is now aware of Rodolfo’s true identity and flirts with him in his room. Amina then enters, sleepwalking and talking about Elvino. Lisa leaves, dropping a handkerchief as she does so, and goes to fetch Elvino. Rodolfo is tempted to take advantage of the vulnerable Amina, but is touched by her innocence and restrains himself. Rodolfo leaves as the villagers, who have learned of the stranger’s identity, arrive to welcome their new lord. They find only a sleeping woman. Lisa and Elvino return, and the woman is revealed to be Amina; Elvino is furious and breaks off the engagement. Only Teresa remains to comfort Amina.

Act II

The villagers remain fond of...

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