Bellini: La sonnambula

COMPOSERS: Bellini
LABELS: Virgin
ALBUM TITLE: La sonnambula
WORKS: La sonnambula
PERFORMER: Natalie Dessay, Carlo Colombara, Francesco Meli, Sara Mingardo,
Jaël Azzaretti, Paul Gay, Gordon
Gietz; Orchestre & Choeurs de
l’Opéra de Lyon/Evelino Pidò

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CATALOGUE NO: 395 1382
On disc as in the opera house La sonnambula all too often tumbles into the mill-race that awaits below its heroine Amina as she sleepwalks on a high ledge in the last scene. As delicate as anything that Bellini wrote, this pastoral masterpiece needs a musician in charge who knows that the orchestra has to lean into the composer’s long limbed melodies and not stretch them. Evelino Pidò conducts magnificently. Nothing here is rushed and for once the horns, those most pastoral of instruments and so important in this work, sound hauntingly beautiful with rich round tone.

What La sonnambula needs above all is a soprano who can make a real flesh-and-blood woman out of the heroine Amina. Quite simply, Natalie Dessay is the most accomplished and the most affecting Amina on record since Callas. And the contrast between the ways in which two consummate singing actresses approach the role is enthralling. Where Callas is young and innocent, almost girlish in her Act I cavatina ‘Come per me sereno’, Dessay is tender but also tough. There’s more than just a hint of wilfulness in her Amina, especially in the dazzling runs in the cabaletta ‘Sopra il sen la man mi posa’.

When Bellini’s sleepwalking heroine finally reveals the depths of her feelings for Elvino in the last scene, Callas spins an unending legato that never seems to breathe; Dessay on the other hand takes a very different view of ‘Ah! non credea mirarti’ – there’s a kind of suppressed excitement in her reading of the aria. If Callas is in a dreamlike trance, then Dessay has fallen into a rapt exalted mood that owes more to possession than sleep. For Callas ‘Ah! non giunge’ is a brilliant, happy end to the story to be hurled out at the audience; for Dessay, on the other hand, the final number is a moment of deep relief. Listen to how she withholds her final top note as if she can’t quite believe the nightmare is over.

Yet it’s not just Dessay who makes this recording so satisfying. It’s hard to imagine a better cast, including Jaël Azzaretti delivering a sweet-toned Lisa, and Sara Mingardo magnificent as Teresa, with that lower register as golden brown as butterscotch. Carlo Colombara’s Rodolfo is suitably beefy, tender too when Amina sleepwalks into his room. But best of all is Francesco Meli as Amina’s fiancé, Elvino, sounding like a gamine lyric tenor, with those head tones that are essential for this kind of bel canto. His opening aria ‘Prendi: l’anel ti dono’ is not only irresistible but it’s also restored to its original tessitura in this recording. As is ‘Vedi, o madre’, Elvino and Amina’s Act II duet. If Meli sometimes pushes the voice too hard in this aria and elsewhere in this rendition, then that’s easily forgiven. Sexual jealousy does awful things to us all!

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Christopher Cook