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La Sonnambula Natalie Dessay Biography

A misunderstanding disrupts marriage plans in 'La Sonnambula'. Opéra national de Paris/ Julien Benhamou hide caption

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Opéra national de Paris/ Julien Benhamou

A misunderstanding disrupts marriage plans in 'La Sonnambula'.

Opéra national de Paris/ Julien Benhamou

The opera takes place in a Swiss village early in the 19th century. ACT ONE opens in the village square where there's an inn, and the local mill, nestled in the background. A chorus of villagers is joyous, but the young woman Lisa, who owns the inn, is down in the dumps. Her former lover, Elvino, a successful farmer, is about to be engaged to someone else — namely Amina, an orphan, brought up by Teresa, who runs the mill.

A man called Alessio rushes in and hugs an unenthusiastic Lisa. He's in love with her, but she pays him little attention. As the villagers arrive to celebrate Amina's engagement, she comes out of the mill with Teresa, and thanks them. Amina naively wishes Alessio and Lisa well, and Teresa notices Lisa's unfriendly reaction.

A notary enters, announcing the arrival of the groom, Elvino. With the notary as a witness, Elvino pledges everything he has to Amina, and she replies that all she has to offer in return is her heart. In their duet, Elvino gives Amina a ring that belonged to his mother, and a bouquet of wildflowers. They are now officially engaged.

The sound of coach wheels is heard, and a stranger enters; he's on his way to a nearby castle, but doesn't know exactly where it is. Lisa says he'll never make it by nightfall, and invites him to stay over at her inn. The villagers don't recognize him, but he remembers the mill and the countryside. He says that when he was young, he briefly lived in the castle he's looking for, and wonders what became of the count who owned it. The others tell him the count died long ago, and his heirs are missing. This stranger, Rodolfo, is quickly smitten by Amina, who reminds him of a youthful love.

It's now dusk and Teresa urges everyone to leave. She warns Rodolfo about a phantom, in white clothes, that haunts the area at night. Rodolfo is skeptical, but the villagers back up her story, describing the ghost to Rodolfo. He says a fervent good night to Amina, much to Elvino's indignation. Left alone, Elvino and Amina quarrel, and then make up, in a florid duet.

In the next scene, at the inn, Rodolfo is flirting with Lisa, who tells him that the local mayor has recognized him as the old count's legal heir, and thus the new lord of the castle. They're startled by a noise, and as Lisa hurriedly leaves, she drops her kerchief. Amina, dressed in white, comes in through the window; she's walking in her sleep, and Rodolfo realizes that she must be the "phantom" the villagers have been seeing.

In disjointed phrases Amina talks about her forthcoming marriage, Elvino's jealousy, and their quarrel. Rodolfo refrains from taking advantage of "this pure and innocent flower," and exits through the window, leaving Amina asleep in his room.

When the villagers arrive to welcome Rodolfo as castle's new lord, they're amused when they discover a girl in Rodolfo's bed. They're about to leave discreetly when Lisa walks in with Elvino and Teresa. Lisa triumphantly points to the sleeping girl, and everyone is shocked when they recognize Amina.

The commotion wakes Amina. She's confused, and says — honestly — that she has no idea how she wound up in Rodolfo's room. But the villagers denounce her, saying she's lying. Teresa, the only one who believes her, picks up the kerchief Lisa dropped earlier, mistaking it for Amina's, and puts it round Amina's neck. As the act ends, Elvino is convinced that Amina has betrayed him, and angrily calls off their wedding.

ACT TWO opens in a valley between the village and the local castle. The villagers are headed for the castle to put Amina's case to Count Rodolfo, while Amina seeks consolation from Teresa.

Meanwhile, Elvino is miserable, and treats Amina with anger. The villagers return, announcing that the Count has exonerated Amina. But that's not good enough for Elvino, who furiously snatches his ring from Amina, refusing to take her back.

In the next scene, in the village square, Lisa again brushes off Alessio's advances. With Amina in disgrace, she's now free to marry Elvino, who seems agreeable. He kisses her hand and leads her towards the church, while Rodolfo, arriving with the villagers, proclaims Amina's innocence.

In a quartet, the Count tries to explain to Elvino that Amina never betrayed him — she really was sleep-walking. Meanwhile, Teresa is shocked to see that Elvino is about to marry Lisa, who helpfully points out that she was not the one who turned up in another man's room. But there's proof that she had been in Rodolfo's room! She left in a hurry when Amina turned up, dropping her kerchief in the process. And when Teresa produces that kerchief, Elvino realizes that Lisa has been lying.

Then, as everyone is in an uproar, a white figure appears on the roof of the mill. It's Amina, sleepwalking again. To the relief of the crowd, she descends without falling.

Still asleep, Amina begins to sing about Elvino and her grief over losing him. The beauty of her sentiment convinces everyone, including Elvino, that she is innocent after all. Elvino returns the engagement ring to Amina's finger, and she's gently awakened. She and Elvino are both overjoyed, and as the opera ends, the villagers hurry them off to the church to be married.

Natalie Dessay ………… Amina

Javier Camarena ……… Elvino

Marie-Adeline Henry ……. Lisa

Michele Pertusi …….… Rodolfo

Cornelia Oncioiu …..….. Teresa

Nahuel de Pierro ……… Alessio

Jian-Hong Zhao ……… Notary

Notes and Editorial Reviews

Out of Bellini’s ten operas Norma is today firmly established as a standard work while both I Puritani and La sonnambula appear now and then in the opera houses or, as here, in concert performance. Once in a while I Capuleti ed i Montecchi also gets an outing but to catch one of the others one has to be lucky indeed. The reason for the neglect has less to do with the quality of the music than the lack of drama. Also the music offers little true theatrical writing, Bellini being much better equipped to write beautiful melodies and atmospheric backdrop than creating musical characters of flesh and blood. La sonnambula, playing in a rural setting in the Swiss Alps, has a great deal of outdoor feeling but the events unfold at a leisurely speedRead more at a time – it is the early 19th century – when the hurly-burly of today’s asphalt-jungles was an unknown quantity. To put it bluntly: Amina is not the only character that displays a somnambulistic behaviour in this opera. Newcomers to the work have consequently been duly warned: there is no blood-and-thunder to be expected.

But this doesn’t mean that the opera should be written off as a non-event. One simply has to change to another wavelength, where people whisper rather than roar, where they walk rather than run and where they think before they act. This last statement is not quite true, however, since the whole conflict is based on a misconception from Elvino, who thinks that Amina has done what she definitely hasn’t. Elvino reacts in misunderstanding and won’t accept any explanation. But who can blame him – finding his bride-to-be in the bedroom of another man – a stranger moreover – dressed in a nightie? Since this opera is not a tragedy everything is sorted out in the end and Amina gets an opportunity to sing A non giunge just before curtain-fall, explaining ‘the happiness that fills’ her. Someone who hasn’t followed the libretto properly might misconstrue the situation and believe she has gone mad, since that is the common reason in romantic opera for indulging in vocal acrobatics.

Armed with the libretto and prepared to be drawn into a sea of lovely melodies and lyrical moods, anyone with an interest in good singing will be in for a really enjoyable occasion. Forget what you have ever read about Bellini being harmonically meagre or contrapuntally incompetent or any other drivel you’ve come across. Others may have been his superiors in these fields – and I don’t believe that he ever had the ambition to challenge any of his illustrious contemporaries – but he knew what he was good at. Here are rich opportunities to get the very special Bellinian brew served by the best waiters and waitresses around, supervised by a restaurateur who knows exactly how to get the most out of a visit to this tavern.

Evelino Pidò is an experienced conductor of the early 19th century bel canto repertoire. I have heard him in both Rossini and Donizetti and he is just as much at home in Bellini. He doesn’t rush things, which is a common mistake when conductors feel they have to brush up Bellini. But up-brushed Bellini often means vulgarized Bellini, and vulgar is the last adjective one can apply to this composer. He is sensitive and Pidò understands this. Bellini may rarely be exceptional in the way Rossini and Donizetti frequently are, but when he is, as in the chorus that opens act 2 with the horn solo and the plucked strings accompaniment, then Pidò brings this out.

But it is Pidò’s staff that carry the day and centre-stage is his head-waitress Natalie Dessay, who seems to do everything right at the moment. She has a brilliant voice and her coloratura technique is superb but what makes her special is the sensitivity of her lyrical singing. Amina is in a way more or less in a dream-world, even when she is awake, and the inwardness and vulnerability of the poor girl is touchingly expressed. Whether intentionally or not she is not always perfectly steady and the tone production has patches of unevenness but this only enhances the impression of a real human being in a sorrowful state of mind. The tone is sometimes as thin as a silver-thread and as a listener one almost stops breathing, not to worry her further. This is a deeply-felt reading that requires to be heard. For once the slogan Dessay is Amina wouldn’t be out of place.

And she isn’t alone in excellence. The young Francesco Meli, born in Genoa in 1980, turns out to be an excellent lyric tenor in the Alfredo Kraus mould. He has all the enticing mellifluousness needed for the role but also the plangent incisiveness of the older singer. This makes him stand out as something more than just another tenore di grazia. His honeyed delivery of Prendi, l’anel ti dono (CD 1 tr. 8) is a splendid calling-card for this upcoming singer, who excels further in a sensitive duet with Amina at the end of the first scene. Furthermore Carlo Colombara triumphs as a true basso cantante with even, smooth, flexible delivery. Vi ravviso (CD 1 tr. 11) has rarely been sung with such warmth and elegance.

In the minor roles Jaël Azzaretti sports a bright and flexible soprano with a personal vibrato as Lisa, Sara Mingardo is an excellent Teresa and Paul Gay manages to breathe some life into the few lines he has to sing as Alessio.

The sound is splendid, deriving from live concert performances as well as some mopping up – I suppose – without an audience. Presentation is first-class and all in all this must now be regarded as the recommended version. Maria Callas’s version is not entirely out of the reckoning, even though it isn’t one of her happiest recordings. Neither of Joan Sutherland’s two recordings is really competitive either. The best alternative, and it is at budget price as well, is actually the ten-year-old Naxos set with Luba Orgonasova and Raúl Giménez, but now it has to take second place after this superb offering from Lyon.

– MusicWeb International (Göran Forsling) Read less

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La sonnambulaby Vincenzo Bellini
Performer:  Jaël Azzaretti (Soprano), Francesco Meli (Tenor), Sara Mingardo (Alto),
Natalie Dessay (Soprano), Carlo Colombara (Bass)
Conductor:  Evelino Pidò
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Lyon Opera Orchestra,  Lyon Opera Chorus
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1831; Italy