- 18 Dic 2018
We are lucky to have so many extant versions of Callas performing La Sonnambula: 1955 at La Scala under Bernstein, 1957 live at Edinburgh, 1957 live at Cologne, and the 1957 studio version (the last three all being under Votto’s baton). This isn’t taking into account the studio excerpts recorded in 1955 under Serafin, which feature Callas in slim but sumptuous voice, but with fairly severe come scritto renditions.
The role of Amina is one of the last major roles Callas took on, with the exceptions of Anna Bolena and Imogen in Il Pirata and arguably Carmen. It’s tempting to imagine what the fat-voiced, volcanic early Callas would have done with Amina’s music. My opinion is that Bellini would have survived (unlike Gilda), partly because La Sonnambula is well suited for the diva-approach that the 1952 Callas would have been keen to take. The silliness of Sonnambula‘s plot has been commented on ad nauseum, but doing so is largely to miss the point. There are none of the aspirations to realism in the verismo operas, for example Puccini’s Butterfly, or even the coherent spiritual argument of a Wagner work. The plot functions enough to provide the framework of emotion. The first act traces Amina’s tender joy and deep affection for Elvino, her subsequent bewilderment and heartbreak; the second act provides the famous sleepwalking scene.
The more important structural governance is musical and vocal. The second half of Act 1 features two duets between Elvino and Amina. The first, which has Elvino and Amina making their vows to each other, and is a model of simplicity and quiet passion. There are literally more notes in the bass arpeggiation than in the vocal line. The second duet, which closes the first scene, is a complete revision of the first. Elvino has expressed his jealousy of even the wind that touches Amina’s face; the two are alone for the first time, and are free to express the ecstasy of their love through vocal means. Even the first verse is a surprise, containing roulades and ellisions that had previously been eschewed. It is no accident that in the middle of the duet, Bellini writes an abrupt, strange, chromatic vocalise for Amina that caps with a high C. This is her passion breaking vocal bounds. Finally, we are treated to the promised vocal bonanza, replete with wide intervals, cascading trills, and lightly descending scales. (The music stays in character, however, with the poignant unaccompanied farewell.)
The 1957 Sonnambulas were undertaken after Callas no longer had the sort of voice with which she could hit a high Eb as easily as drinking water (to use Simionato’s words), as she still had in 1955. Accordingly — or perhaps because she changed her mind about the role — Callas scales down her approach. One is amazed by just how much Callas holds back throughout; she only really sings full out in parts of the big duet “Son geloso del zefiro” and in the finale. Whereas Amina’s opening scene is no longer the astounding virtuoso performance it was in 1955, the finale (“Ah non giunge”) is much more satisfying, no longer sounding burdened with ornamentation as it did two years prior; here, her voice races up and down like a trapeze artist. Votto also does not make the gestures Bernstein makes: “Son geloso” and “Ah non credea” are much faster in 1957 than in 1955. This tempo change disturbed me initially, but they make sense in context. A brisker tempo better highlight’s Bellini’s virtuosic intentions for the duet, and in “Ah non credea” it provides a dreamy contrast to the preceding recitative. Monti, as Elvino, does beautifully in duets with Callas, but bleats through his act II solo (and his only solo in the whole opera).
Much has been made of Callas’s dramatic approach, how it animates a basically flat character. While this is true, the real reason her Amina is a success is because she understands the overall vocal structure as Bellini constructed it. As much as we are moved by Amina’s plight, a performance of the opera is satisfying only when the prima donna understands and essays the multifaceted and changing nature of the music while maintaining a consistent, basic characterization.
(ANGELO – CONFUSED ABOUT THE CEILING – RUMINATIONS ON POETRY, POETS, ART AND MUSIC, SCIENCE, AND SOCIETY, PROBABLY IN THAT (DECREASING) ORDER – MAY 27, 2012).