Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Sunday, April 6, 2014


In the current Met revival of La Sonnambula, as heard on March 25, Diana Damrau sang Amina with an instrument that is richer with each passing season, with no diminution of dexterity and comfort in alt, with her customary feeling and energy The two cartwheels she turned during "Ah, non giunge" summed up the joy of the character and of the performer at ease with the physical and vocal athletics of the part. The Elvino of Javier Camarena was the surprise of the evening. His voice is warm, fluent, responsive to a wide dynamic range, comfortable at the top. If his phrasing is a tad less impeccable that that of Fl√≥rez in the role (particularly at the beginning) it still reflects accomplished belcantism. The other principal singers were disappointing--Rachelle Durkin a wiry Lisa, Michele Pertusi, a Rodolfo insecure of pitch, woolly of tone. Conductor Marco Armiliato was accommodating, not inspiring.

The Met's first Amina, Marcella Sembrich, starred in La Sonnambula a few weeks after her tremendously successful debut as Lucia in 1883 in the company's inaugural season. Her 1904 recording (on YouTube) of the cabaletta, "Ah, non giunge," documents her fluency, not the renowned beauty of her timbre. In 1910, Elvira de Hidalgo, the future teacher of Maria Callas, sang the role with the company, although only twice. Reviewers were unanimous in their assessments of prodigious technique and shrill timbre, attributes in evidence in her recording of "Ah, non giunge" (on YouTube). The plangency of the Met's next Amina (1916), Maria Barrientos, emerges clearly from her 1920 rendition of the aria. The soprano exploits her phenomenal battery of fioriture in this showcase for coloratura feats and flights, but also rescues the deering-do from mere stunt with taste, personality, charm, liquid tone, and a remarkable command of the messa di voce, the long-held crescendo-diminuendo.

The Met's next Amina ought to have been Amelita Galli-Curci, the superstar engaged to open the 1921-22 season, the first after the death of Caruso. Galli-Curci had sung the role to great acclaim at New York's Lexington Theatre with the Chicago company on the occasion of Tito Schipa's spring 1920 New York debut. The sensitive noctambulist certainly fit Galli-Curci's gentle persona and the limpid, petal-soft sound for which she was famous. During her nine-season-long Met career, she never sang the role with the company, nor did she include any of its music in her interpolations during the "Lesson Scene" from Il Barbiere di Siviglia. A recording of the Act I duet with Schipa captures what might have been heard at the Met.

The opera was broadcast from the Met stage in 1933 and 1935 with Lily Pons, the second time with Giacomo Lauri-Volpi. To my knowledge, no transcriptions of these broadcasts are extant.

Before the reawakening of La Sonnambula on 39th Street in 1963 for Joan Sutherland, aficionados had to go elsewhere to hear this trove of melody. The opera had achieved wide recognition when Callas performed it at La Scala in 1955, in a production directed by Luchino Visconti and conducted by Leonard Bernstein. There is no better example of the composer's gravitas than the Act II finale as rendered by Callas, Bernstein, and tenor Cesare Valletti.

During the Scala's 1957 trip to the Edinburgh Festival, Callas had to withdraw during a run of Sonnambulas. This then became the first big step in the international career of her replacement, twenty-three-year-old Renata Scotto. She would sing Amina at the Met seven times. My memory of her exquisite phrasing and sweet tone in 1972 is sustained by the transcription of the duet, with Alfredo Kraus, from Venice, 1961.

I close this cursory survey of exemplars of Bellinian bel canto with a late-1940s recording of "Vi ravviso," sung with utter scrupulousness to suavity of line by the very young Cesare Siepi, already master of the most beautiful bass voice of his generation.

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