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Thread: Bellini's 'La Sonambula' reviewed

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    Default Bellini's 'La Sonambula' reviewed

    An interesting new recording featuring mezzo Cecelia Bartoli
    in title role. From www.classicstoday.com . Ed

    VINCENZO BELLINI
    La sonnambula
    Juan Diego Florez (tenor); Cecilia Bartoli (mezzo-soprano); Ildebrando D’Arcangelo (bass); others

    Chorus of Opernhaus Zurich
    Orchestra La Scintilla

    Alessandro De Marchi

    Decca- 4781087(CD)

    9/9 Rating (artistic quality/sound).


    I'm going to go out on a limb and say that this recording catches the pastoral, small-village ambiance of La sonnambula better than any other available. Let's face it--there's barely a plot and the characters are very small people. In this tiny Swiss village, Amina (almost everyone's favorite person) and Elvino are betrothed, though Lisa, the landlady of the Inn, has her eyes on Elvino. The most exciting thing about the village is the local phantom, seen occasionally at night. But when Amina, who is a sleepwalker, sleepwalks into the room of a visiting count, Lisa seizes the opportunity and makes sure Elvino catches her at it. Confused and hurt, he denounces her and calls off the wedding, announcing that he will marry Lisa. Amina is miserable, and all is not well until everyone actually sees her sleepwalking and realizes her innocence and the truth about the phantom. No kings, no queens, no murders or pacts with devils; not even any tuberculosis.

    Over the years, dazzling singing has made up (and apologized) for the simplicity of the plot--the tessitura and florid vocal lines for Amina and Elvino are weirdly high, particularly when cadenzas are added and high notes interpolated. And at times the directness of the emotions and staggering beauty of the straightforward melodies have gotten lost in the pyrotechnics.

    Both Amina's creator, Giuditta Pasta, and later interpreter, Maria Malibran, now would be categorized as mezzos. (There were no such distinctions made at the time, but their voices, it is said, had darkish hues.) They both had high-Cs--Bellini wrote them--but it wasn't until much later that lighter, higher-voiced singers adapted the part to their own ranges, with dizzying excursions to high E-flats and above. Most of the role sits comfortably in the middle of the voice.

    Similarly, Giovanni Battista Rubini was the first Elvino, and while the role is written with a tessitura that lingers above the staff for very long stretches, there's only one high-D in the score and very few reaches into the real stratosphere. Furthermore, pitch was lower in the 1830s. This recording is the first to use period instruments, the first to use A=430 (just a bit below current concert pitch), and the first to feature a mezzo-soprano in the title role.

    There is no doubt that the pitch adjustment takes the edge off much of the music and adds great warmth to both Amina's and Elvino's vocal lines. This is further helped by transposing the duets (and Elvino's second-act aria) down a half-tone. Once the listener realizes that this isn't going to be the high-note party we're accustomed to, a whole new way of hearing the opera emerges: gentler and less brittle. Even "Ah, non giunge", Amina's great showpiece finale, takes on a more temperate ambiance; it was never a piece exclaiming revenge or madness, just a return to the calm, unassuming ways of love and normalcy within the village. As I mentioned above, this recording focuses on the intimacy of the story as no other, although that certainly doesn't mean it is the "best".

    I found the recent Virgin set starring the wonderful Natalie Dessay unmoving and uninteresting. Evelino Pido's tempos seem slower than they are; he finds the music too precious. Add to that the fact that Dessay's non-Italian sound never has sounded more out of place (it simply doesn't caress the music), her coloratura is oddly tentative early on, and tenor Francesco Meli suffers considerable trials and tribulations with the high tessitura (and pitch), and you get the feeling that you are listening to a test of some kind. La sonnambula should be sung with the ease of classical ballet, as it is here.

    That having been said, not everyone will cozy up to Cecilia Bartoli's Amina. It isn't only her underlining every phrase with her usual breathy "sincerity"--it's how closely she's recorded. It sometimes sounds as if she were recorded in an entirely different environment and the track overlaid. I may be over-reacting, however: when analyzed, hers is beautiful singing, with a tear or smile in the voice when needed, and coloratura accurate to an almost supernatural degree. Her variations of "Sovra il sen la man mi posa" are staggering. I also love hearing the music emerge from such a rich middle register (just what the likes of Dessay, Gruberova, and June Amderson do not have) and hearing Bellini's vocal lines sounding loved as well as lovely. But can't someone save her from her mannerisms?

    On the other hand, there is nothing wrong with Juan Diego Florez's performance of Elvino. Smooth as silk, loving, the voice easily produced (even more-so transposed down so there's never a hint of shouting or over-extending the basic tone), mellow but gleaming when necessary, his singing in the duets is even more glorious than in his big solo. He and Bartoli think as one, and conductor Alessandro De Marchi pace the pair with an ear for a real time, unmelodramatic reading. Simple people in a small village, indeed, but boy, can they sing! Florez practically glows in the dark.
    The rest of the cast, the excellent, virile-but-noble Ildebrando d'Arcangelo as Count Rodolfo notwithstanding, is not impressive. Lisa is the usual harridan-in-training, and the others are solid, uninteresting bit players. There's room in Bellini's music, even in the small parts, for lovely sounds, but you'll find few here.

    The use of period instruments as played by the Orchestra La Scintilla with this casting is right-on. Their more laid-back sounds go well with the chamber-like approach this performance is clearly aiming for, and the sharp attacks on the gut strings, hand-in-hand with the chorus' quick responses, brings the drama front and center. Just listen to the orchestral interlude early in Act 2 (before Amina and Teresa enter) for some beautiful playing; the melody, I'd never noticed before, is that of the trio "Angiol di pace" from the composer's Beatrice di Tenda. And De Marchi's tempos are always right.

    Despite some reservations about Bartoli--the same, essentially, that I and many others have had for years--there's no doubt that she is a remarkably engaging singer, and she makes Amina very much her own. She's not Callas, who had the dark middle timbre, thrilling top notes, and a sort of spontaneity that made Amina a real character without trying too hard, and she's clearly not trying to be Sutherland. But she's Bartoli, and she has Florez beside her and a conductor and approach that are both unique and valid.

    --Robert Levine

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    Senior Member Fritz Kobus's Avatar
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    Well, I have the Bartoli Sonnambula and, while I like it, it won't be my favorite because Bartoli's vocals present Amina as too bold of a maiden. I think that it is preferred to have a maiden who is a bit more on the shy side. I like the idea of a mezzo doing Amina, so perhaps some other mezzo might work better.
    "All of Italian opera can be heard in [Bellini's] "Ah! non creda [mirarti]."
    --Renata Scotto in "Scotto, More Than a DIva."

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    Senior Member KenOC's Avatar
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    This should probably be in the opera forum...


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    As it should be 9 years ago

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    Senior Member KenOC's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Rogerx View Post
    As it should be 9 years ago
    Oh. Yeah.


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    Senior Member Fritz Kobus's Avatar
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    No matter if the review is 9 years old. Reviews don't go stale. It is a great recording in many aspects and especially for Bartoli or Florez fans.
    "All of Italian opera can be heard in [Bellini's] "Ah! non creda [mirarti]."
    --Renata Scotto in "Scotto, More Than a DIva."

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    Senior Member Rogerx's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Fritz Kobus View Post
    No matter if the review is 9 years old. Reviews don't go stale. It is a great recording in many aspects and especially for Bartoli or Florez fans.
    But one thing helped, it's in the right place now.

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    Senior Member Fritz Kobus's Avatar
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    Bartoli of course has an impressive bravura technique, but her rapid-fire articulation of divisions in Rossini arias does not employ the same method of singing required for Amina’s coloratura. Bartoli is not entirely successful in making the requisite transition, aspirating passages that demand perfect legato, but she nonetheless contributes an effective, touching performance that is never less than idiomatic. Dramatically, there is a measure of applying vocal effects (whispers, little explosions of color and volume, and the like) when simple good singing would suffice. In her duets with Flórez, however, Bartoli lets both her voice and the music do their work without impediments, and the results are ravishing, the voices combining more effectively than in any other recorded performance. It is difficult to compare Bartoli’s Amina with Callas’ or Sutherland’s, but it would also be difficult to deny that this is an extremely fine Sonnambula
    .
    https://www.voix-des-arts.com/2009/0...-awake-or.html
    "All of Italian opera can be heard in [Bellini's] "Ah! non creda [mirarti]."
    --Renata Scotto in "Scotto, More Than a DIva."

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    I view Bartoli's Bellini recordings as experiments and that which works in Sonnambula falls flat in Norma. Whilst written for the same diva, they are different in style (Bellini and Donizetti knew how to conjure up an atmosphere despite accusations to the contrary by their detractors - the choruses of bucolic villagers have nothing to do with the grand sweep of Gaul's druids).

    Hearing the work on period instruments adds to our understanding of the piece and their is some fine singing from the principals. That said this isn't my favourite Bellini opera and the rare moments I wish to listen to it I go for Callas live in 55 from La Scala. The other recording I like is the Sutherland/Pavarotti. I should listen to the Florez/Bartoli again, though.

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    Senior Member Fritz Kobus's Avatar
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    Bartoli is just different--way different. I like here DVD performance of NINA a lot.
    "All of Italian opera can be heard in [Bellini's] "Ah! non creda [mirarti]."
    --Renata Scotto in "Scotto, More Than a DIva."

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