Bellini’s “La Sonnambula” is one of the most popular operas in the Bel Canto repertoire and one that many coloratura sopranos have embraced on stage. On March 6, 1831, the opera had its world premiere with Giuditta Pasta in the title role. Pasta was known as a soprano sfogato which is designated to a contralto who is capable—by sheer industry or natural talent—of extending her upper range and being able to encompass the coloratura soprano tessitura.
But it was Maria Malibran, another sfogato who had an edition created for her so she could sing the work. In that edition, most of the arias were transposed down a third or a fourth tone. With Pasta and Malibran in mind, OperaWire takes a look at two great mezzo-sopranos who broke tradition and recorded or performed the work.
Frederica Von Stade
One of the greatest lyric mezzos of her time dominated the French and Bel Canto repertoire. Von Stade was well known for her Charlotte in Massenet’s “Werther” and Rossini’s “La Cenerentola” as well as her Mélisande in Debussy’s “Pelléas et Mélisande.” But she was also a mezzo who took risks and in 1984 she introduced her interpretation of Amina at the San Francisco Opera. When she performed the role, Von Stade looked at the score carefully and realized that she did not have to transpose the majority of the music. Instead only the first aria “Care compagne… Sopra il sen la man mi posa” was taken down a tone, the first part of her final aria “Ah, Non Credea” remained as written and the final ”Ah! non giunge” went down a minor third. The result was a mixed bags due to the upper range thinning out as well as the problematic plot. However, that did not stop Von Stade from repeating the opera and in 1985 she took it to Dallas. You can listen hear and decide for yourself.
Bartoli has always been the type to venture into the unknown. She took on Norma with period instruments and redefined how audiences view the work. She reshaped the meaning of impeccable coloratura and brought a number of Rossini works to the forefront. So it was not a surprise that the adventurous mezzo would take on Amina in the Malibran edition. While she never performed the opera on stage, she did record it for Decca. While most would argue that her tempi in the recording are languid and the tone does not have the quality one is used to for the role, she clearly demonstrated a virtuosic power particularly in her “Ah! non giunge.” What most fans were excited about, however, was the chance to finally hear both Bartoli and Juan Diego Florez on the same recording. And both singers showed a true chemistry that outweighed any negatives.