Vincenzo Bellini’s Place of Honor in Opera

  • by William ‘Rock’ Hill

Known as the “Swan of Catania” (his birthplace in Italy), Bellini produced an incredible body of work during a much too short life. His operas Norma, La sonnambula, I puritani, Anna Bolena, and I Capuleti ed I Montecchi continue to hold the stage almost 200 years after they were composed, and along with Donizetti and Rossini, Bellini defines a style of composition that remains as powerful and moving today as during the early 19th century. Bellini’s death in Paris at the age of 33 in 1835 followed closely the deaths of such major composers and literati as Beethoven, Lord Byron, Schubert, and Goethe, and also the unofficial retirement from the opera stage of Rossini, in many ways marking the end of a remarkable period of artistic creation that is almost unparalleled. And it was the great Rossini, after having completed his magnum opus William Tell in 1829, effectively terminating his role as the world’s most revered opera composer and upon learning of Bellini’s untimely death, who organized Bellini’s funeral and entombment in Paris at the Pere Lachaise cemetery in the 20th Arrondissement of Paris, where a monument is viewed by thousands of fans every year.

Unlike his peers Donizetti and Rossini, Bellini did not write opera buffa: his opera serias and melodramas typically involve tragic heroines who die at the end of the opera, usually after a show stopping coloratura aria that ends with the heroine prone on the stage in the throes of death.  In a letter to one of his librettists, Bellini wrote that “The opera must draw tears, terrify people, make them die through singing.” That he and his librettists succeeded is attested by his success during his short life: starting with Il pirate in 1827 and continuing until his death 8 years later, Bellini produced one triumph after another (with perhaps one exception—Zaira, first performed in Parma in 1829).  Had Bellini survived to the age of 56 like Beethoven, or the age of 89 like Verdi, there is no telling what other masterpieces he (and Schubert) would have produced, perhaps even a comedic gem like Falstaff, which was written by Verdi after his production of a lifetime of dead heroes and heroines.  Had Verdi died at 32, his reputation would rest largely on Nabucco and Ernani. Lost to the canon would be Rigoletto, La Traviata, Aida, et al. Was there a Rigoletto lurking in the back of Bellini’s brain, waiting to be written? We can only speculate…

La sonnambula (The Sleepwalker), which will be presented by Island Opera in Feb., 2018, is Bellini’s 8th opera and was first performed in 1831 to great acclaim. Sonnambula is an archetypal early Romantic creation, in its way similar to the poetry of Coleridge, Frankenstein by Mary Shelly, and Schubert’s Earlkonig (with a text written by Goethe). Centered on natural phenomena (somnambulism), peopled by commoners rather than Kings and Queens, and intended to create a powerful emotional response from its audience, La sonnambula resonated with audiences of the mid 1800’s from its premier in Milan to its production in London  the same year and New York in 1835, and indeed ever since. Bellini was a professional musician and composer who depended on his audience for his earnings. Unlike Haydn or Bach (or even to a large extent Beethoven), Bellini, Donizetti, and Verdi wrote for their audiences and the impresarios who controlled the opera houses. If your opera did not produce paying customers, you were not going to be hired.

And Bellini was able to produce the customers, giving them what they demanded, which was music theater very different from what was popular with the aristocracy a generation or 2 earlier. Witnessing the premier of La sonnambula, Glinka wrote that the principal singers “themselves wept and carried the audience along with them,” obviously to the pleasure of the composer and his desire to make the tears flow. The story was based on a ballet-pantomime written by Scribe (who wrote libretti for Rossini also), the libretto by Felice Romani (also a favorite of Rossini), and was intended to take advantage of the then-current fashion for all things somnambulist. The heroine Amina is, of course, a sleepwalker who gets herself into compromising situations while asleep, and although tragedy seems ready to erupt in every scene, the opera ends happily when Amina and Elvino are reconciled, the chorus rejoices, and Amina sings that “Human thought cannot conceive of the happiness that fills me” (“Ah! Non giunge uman pensiero / al content ond’io son piena”). Originally written for soprano sforga, the role of Amina has been a favorite of singers from Jenny Lind in the 1800’s to Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland, and Cecilia Bartoli more recently. A Decca recording from 1980 with Sutherland and Pavarotti remains available for those interested in hearing the entire opera before enjoying Island Opera’s version.

Bellini’s reputation as a great melodist– praised even by Wagner– is exemplified by Amina’s sleepwalking aria in the final scene, “Ah! Non credea mirarti, o fiore” (“I did not believe you would fade so soon, oh flower”). Starting as nothing more than an ascending scale in A minor, descending to the tonic in the second measure and then briefly modulating in a series of 4ths and 6ths to the dominant (“o fiore”), it is simplicity itself . Like the flowers she is holding, and ultimately like Bellini himself, Amina laments what she believes is the shortness of her life,  only to awaken to Elvino’s re-kindled love for her.

After completing perhaps his greatest opera (Norma), Bellini became ill with a gastro-intestinal infection and died within a few days at the age of 33. Initially, his remains were interred in Paris but then moved to his birthplace. On his tomb in Catania, where his body now rests, is inscribed the first line from “Ah! Non credea mirarti.”   Life imitating art, or vice versa: like Amina’s flowers and the mythology behind the swan’s song, Il Cigno di Catania left too soon and no doubt with much left to sing.

William Hill
Vincenzo Bellini