Music with Ease > 19th Century Italian Opera > La Sonnambula (Bellini) - Synopsis
La Sonnambula - Synopsis
(English title: The Sleepwalker)
An Opera by Vincenzo Bellini
Opera in three acts by Bellini, words by Felice Romani. Produced Carcano Theatre, Milan, March 6, 1831. London, Kings Theatre, July 28, 1831; in English, Drury Lane, May 1, 1833. New York, Park Theatre, November 13, 1835, in English, with Brough, Richings, and Mr. and Mrs. Wood; in Italian, Palmos Opera House, May 11, 1844; frequently sung by Gerster and by Adelina Patti at the Academy of Music, and at the Metropolitan Opera House by Sembrich; at the Manhattan Opera House by Tetrazzini.
COUNT RODOLPHO, Lord of the castle
TERESA, proprietress of the mill
AMINA, her foster daughter
LISA, proprietress of the village inn
ELVINO, a young farmer
ALESSIO, a villager
Notary, Villagers, etc.
Time: Early Nineteenth Century.
Place: A Village in Switzerland.
Act I. The village green. On one side an inn. In the background a water mill. In the distance mountains. As the curtain rises the villagers are making merry, for they are about to celebrate a nuptial contract between Amina, an orphan brought up as the foster child of Teresa, the mistress of the village mill, and Elvino, a young landowner of the neighbourhood. These preparations, however, fill with jealousy the heart of Lisa, the proprietress of the inn. For she is in love with Elvino. Nor do Alessios ill-timed attentions please her. Amina enters under the care of Teresa, and returns he thanks to her neighbours for their good wishes. She has two attractive solos. These are "Come per me sereno" (How, for me brightly shining)
and "Sovia il sen la man mi posa" (With this heart its joy revealing).
Both are replete with grace and charm.
When the village Notary and Elvino appear the contract is signed and attested, and Elvino places a ring on Aminas finger. Duet: "Prendi lavel ta dono" (Take now the ring I give you), a composition in long-flowing expressive measures.
Then the village is startled by the crack of whips and the rumble of wheels. A handsome stranger in officers fatigue uniform appears. He desires to have his horses watered and fed, before he proceeds to the castle. The road is bad, night is approaching. Counselled by the villagers, and urged by Lisa, the officer consents to remain the night at the inn.
The villagers know it not at this time, but the officer is Rodolpho, the lord of the castle. He looks about him and recalls the scenes of his youth: "Vi ravviso" (As I view).
He then gallantly addresses himself to Amina in the charming air, "Tu non sai in quel begli occhi" (You know not, maid, the light your eyes within).
Elvino is piqued at the strangers attention to his bride, but Teresa warns all present to retire, for the village is said to be haunted by a phantom. The stranger treats the superstition lightly, and, ushered in by Lisa, retires to the village inn. All then wend their several ways homeward. Elvino, however, finds time to upbraid Amina for seemingly having found much pleasure in the strangers gallant speeches, but before they part there are mutual concessions and forgiveness.
Act II. Rodolphos sleeping apartment at the inn. He enters, conducted by Lisa. She is coquettish, he quite willing to meet her halfway in taking liberties with her. He learns from her that his identity as the lord of the castle has now been discovered by the villagers, and that they will shortly come to the inn to offer their congratulations.
He is annoyed, but quite willing that Lisas attractions shall atone therefore. At that moment, however, there is a noise without, and Lisa escapes into an adjoining room. In her haste she drops her handkerchief, which Rodolpho picks up and hangs over the bedpost. A few moments later he is amazed to see Amina, all in white, raise his window and enter his room. He realizes almost immediately that she is walking in her sleep, and that it is her somnambulism which has given rise to the superstition of the village phantom. In her sleep Amina speaks of her approaching marriage, of Elvinos jealousy, of their quarrel and reconciliation. Rodolpho, not wishing to embarrass her by his presence should she suddenly awaken, extinguishes the candles, steps out of the window and closes it lightly after him. Still asleep Amina sinks down upon the bed.
The villagers enter to greet Rodolpho. As the room is darkened, and, to their amusement, they are the figure of a woman on the bed, they are about to withdraw discreetly, when Lisa, who knows what has happened, enters with a light, brings in Elvino, and points out Amina to him. The light, the sounds, awaken her. Her natural confusion at the situation in which she finds herself is mistaken by Elvino for evidence of guilt. He casts her off. The others, save Teresa, share his suspicions. Teresa, in a simple, natural way, takes the handkerchief hanging over the bedpost and places it around Aminas neck, and when the poor, grief-stricken girl swoons, as Elvino turns away from her, her foster-mother catches her in her arms.
On this scene, indeed in this act, the most striking musical number is the duet near the end. It is feelingly composed, and, as befits the situation of a girl mistakenly, yet none the less cruelly, accused by her lover, is almost wholly devoid of vocal embellishment. It begins with Aminas protestations of innocence: "Dun pensiero, et dun accento" (Not in thoughts remotest region).
When Elvinos voice joins hers there is no comfort for her in his words. He is still haunted by dark suspicions.
An unusual and beautiful effect is the closing of the duet with an expressive phrase for tenor alone: "Questo pianto del mio cor" (With what grief my heart is torn).
Act III. Scene I. A shady valley between the village and the castle. The villagers are proceeding to the castle to beg Rodolpho to intercede with Elvino for Amina. Elvino meets Amina. Still enraged at what he considers her perfidy, he snatches from her finger the ring he gave her. Amina still loves him. She expresses her feelings in the air: "Ah! perche non posso odiarti" (Ah! Why is it I cannot hate him).
Scene 2. The village, near Teresas mill. Water runs through the race and the wheel turns rapidly. A slender wooden bridge, spanning the wheel, gives access from some dormer lights in the millroof to an old stone flight of steps leading down to the foreground.
Lisa has been making hay while the sun shines. She has induced Elvino to promise to marry her. Preparations for the wedding are on foot. The villagers have assembled. Rodolpho endeavours to dissuade Elvino from the step he is about to take. He explains that Amina is a somnambulist. But Elvino has never heard of somnambulism. He remains utterly incredulous.
Teresa begs the villagers to make less disturbance, as poor Amina is asleep in the mill. The girls foster-mother learns of Elvinos intention of marrying Lisa. Straightway she takes from her bosom Lisas handkerchief, which she found hanging over Rodolphos bedpost. Lisa is confused. Elvino feels that she, too, has betrayed him. Rodolpho again urges upon Elvino that Amina never was false to him -- that she is the innocent victim of sleepwalking.
"Who can prove it?" Elvino asks in agonized tones.
"Who? She herself! -- See there!" exclaims Rodolpho.
For at that very moment Amina, in her nightdress, lamp in hand, emerges from a window in the mill roof. She passes along, still asleep, to the lightly built bridge spanning the mill wheel, which is still turning round quickly. Now she sets foot on the narrow, insecure bridge. The villagers fall on their knees in prayer that she may cross safely. Rodolpho stands among them, head uncovered. As Amina crosses the bridge a rotting plank breaks under her footsteps. The lamp falls from her hand into the torrent beneath. She, however, reaches the other side, and gains the stone steps, which she descends. Still walking in her sleep, she advances to where stand the villagers and Rodolpho. She kneels and prays for Elvino. Then rising, she speaks of the ring he prays for Elvino. Then rising, she speaks of the ring he has taken from her, and draws from her bosom the flowers given to her by him on the previous day. "Ah! non credea mirarti, si presto estinto o flore" (Scarcely could I believe it that so soon thou wouldst wither, O blossoms).
Gently Elvino replaces the ring upon her finger, and kneels before her. "Viva Amina!" cry the villagers. She awakens. Instead of sorrow, she sees joy all around her, and Elvino, with arms outstretched, waiting to beg her forgiveness and lead her to the altar.
Ah! Non giunge uman pensiero,
Al contento ond io son piena
(Mingle not an earthly sorrow
With the rapture now oer me stealing).
It ends with this brilliant passage:
The "Ah! non giunge" is one of the show pieces of Italian opera. Nor is its brilliance hard and glittering. It is the brightness of a tender soul rejoicing at being enabled to cast off sorrow. Indeed, there is about the entire opera a sweetness and a gentle charm, that go far to account for its having endured so long in the repertoire, out of which so many works far more ambitious have been dropped.
Opera -goers of the old Academy of Music days will recall the bell-like tones of Etelka Gersters voice in "Ah! non giunge"; nor will they ever forget the bird-like, spontaneous singing in this role of Adelina Patti, gifted with a voice and an art such as those who had the privilege of hearing her in her prime have not heard since, nor are likely to hear again. Admirers of Mme. Sembrichs art also are justly numerous, and it is fortunate for habitués of the Metropolitan that she was so long in the company singing at that house. She was a charming Amina. Tetrazzini was brilliant in "La Sonnambula." Elvino is a stick of a rôle for tenor. Rodolpho has the redeeming grace of chivalry. Amina is gentle, charming, appealing.
The story of "Sonnambula" is simple and thoroughly intelligible, which cannot be said for all opera plots. The mainspring of the action is the interesting psycho-physical manifestation of somnambulism. This is effectively worked out. The crossing of the bridge in the last scene is a tense moment in the simple story. It calls for an interesting stage "property" -- the plank that breaks without precipitating Amina, who sometimes may have more embonpoint than voice, into the mill-race. All these elements contribute to the success of "La Sonnambula," which, produced in 1831, still is a good evenings entertainment.
Amina was one of Jenny Linds favourite roles. There is a beautiful portrait of her in the character by Eichens. It shows her, in the last act, kneeling and singing "Ah! non credea," and is somewhat of a rarity. A copy of it is in the print department of the New York Public Library. It is far more interesting than her better known portraits.