La sonnambula, Opera by V. Bellini
Things tend to go badly for the characters in most of the operas written by Vincenzo Bellini: death is rarely far away. La sonnambula (The Sleepwalker), with its happy ending, is an altogether gentler affair. Nonetheless, it is clearly as good as any of the composer’s darker creations.
First seen at the Teatro Carcano in Milan on 6 March 1831, La sonnambula encourages us to believe people when they say they are telling the truth. Amina, the adopted daughter of Teresa, a mill owner, is betrothed to Elvino. Lisa, who runs an inn, would rather be marrying Elvino herself.
A dashing young stranger’s arrival attracts everyone’s attention. Now it’s Elvino’s turn to be jealous. Meanwhile, the locals waste no time in telling their visitor their stories about the village ghost.
The young man elects to stay at the inn for the night. When Lisa finds out that he is Count Rodolfo, she cannot prevent herself from flirting with him. Then suddenly Amina comes into his room, sleepwalking. Lisa hides and the count, realising that Amina is the phantom everyone has been talking about, lies her down on his bed rather than wake her.
News spreads that Amina has slept with the count. An incensed Elvino breaks off the engagement and quickly announces his decision to marry Lisa instead. Lisa, who had always wanted Elvino, could not be happier.
The count and Amina protest their innocence; no one is prepared to listen. That is until Teresa produces Lisa’s handkerchief, proof that it was she who had first been in Rodolfo’s bedroom. Just as the commotion dies down, Amina appears again, sleepwalking, but this time she is on the roof of the mill and her life in danger.
The unwanted attentions of nineteenth-century censors were probably responsible for many operas never reaching the stage. But in the case of La sonnambula we should thank them for its existence. Bellini had originally planned a work based on Victor Hugo’s Hernani, but the authorities baulked at its content. Bellini played safe by switching to La sonnambula.
Great opera is meant to stir up our emotions. But few works in the genre are as likely to bring a tear to the eye as La sonnambula. Those who go to see it at the Teatro Costanzi will enjoy an absolute gem of an opera, with music so beautiful that you will want it to continue long after the final curtain has come down.