The Sleepwalker Who Wasn’t There: Writing and Rewriting La sonnambula

By Steven Kahn

An old saw in the world of writing has it that “There is no writing—just rewriting”. Composer Vincenzo Bellini and librettist Felice Romani found this to be abundantly so in the twisting tale of how La sonnambula finally made it to the stage on March 6, 1831. They not only started on an entirely different story in 1830, later shifting over to Sonnambula late in the year, but they made some major alterations once completing the first act which required revisions to work already done. Given a deadline they were working under this would have certainly made for a frenetic few weeks for the pair.

In early 1830 Bellini contracted to write a new opera for the Milan Carnival season in the winter of 1831 (which, despite being related to the period before Lent, lasted well after Ash Wednesday on February 8—until March 20, just two weeks before Easter). The season that year was enlivened by the presence of two competing impresarios putting on various operas, ballets, and concerts—with one of whom Bellini was contracted to deliver an opera for.

In the early summer he and Romani settled upon adapting Victor Hugo’s play from winter 1830, Ernani. As the famed soprano Guiditta Pasta would be singing whatever prima donna role was crafted, her approval was also sought and granted. However, it seems few others were consulted: “Beyond these three…one does wonder just who the others were who had read and admired this bold new play from France.” The story, though “historical”, clearly touched on politically liberal themes regarding the papacy, monarchy, and assassination. Such subjects were more than usually under suspicion by the Italian censoring authorities owing to the July (1830) revolution in Paris, which ended in the deposition of Charles X and the proclaiming of a new constitutional monarchy.

As it stands, Romani provided Bellini with nothing throughout the fall, to the latter’s distress. In November and December, Bellini actually started putting together some scenes for Ernani. However, just after the new year, Bellini wrote in a letter,

“I am no longer writing Ernani, you know, since the police would have had the subject suffer some modification, and so Romani abandoned it in order not to compromise himself, and now he is writing La sonnambula ossia I due fidanzati svizzeri, and I began the introduzione just yesterday [January 2]. Look how I am forced to write this opera…in a short period of time, given that it must go on stage no later than 20 February.”

What of this new piece? It was originally a Parisian ballet from 1827 by Eugène Scribe, with music by L.-J.-F. Hérold and choreography by J.-P. Aumer. In its original form, there was much buffoonish sport made of the country bumpkins who inhabit the village. Bellini and Romani wished to do something about this: “Given that composer and librettist had already been working from a drame of a certain gravity when the abandoned Hermani…we may suppose that their first and foremost objective was to find an approach that was…more elevated in style. The editors of the Ricordi critical edition list what does not occur in the opera:

  • The landowner (Elvino) does not visit the tomb of his mother seeking her benediction.
  • He does not identify the maternal provenance of the ring he gives.
  • No “charming place” for Scribe’s daring soldier (Rodolfo) to remember when he arrives: a character with no noble lineage, a nouveau gentilhomme, therefore not returning to the land of his youth.
  • No particular sense of vigilant jealousy by (Elvino)
  • No particular source of inspiration for the chorus—not even “A fosco cielo, a notte bruna” or “Qui la selva è più folta ed ombrosa”

One fateful decision was made early in the writing process by Bellini and Romani: to reveal in act II, after the scene where Elvino snatches the ring from Amina’s finger, that Rodolfo is in fact Amina’s father. The editors remark that though the fact “that he
would eventually prove to be Amina’s father was an elevating touch destined to solve one problem, [but] it also created another.” The original “Rodolfo” character was undoubtedly a womanizer, which provided the necessary grounds for Elvino’s jealousy:

“It was therefore necessary to maintain the more prurient situations that nurtured this confusion—the new arrival’s ready disposition to flirt, the suggestive bedroom scene, Elvino’s paradoxical recourse to the real ‘easy woman’, her deceit undone—while at the same time crafting a character of the loftiest moral stature.”

In mid-February, after work on the second act had begun (February 8), the decision was made to abandon the idea that Rodolfo was Amina’s father. It was intended for Rodolfo and Amina to sing a duet after Elvino takes back the ring. Though Bellini set the duet text, things finally went too far beyond “bedroom farce” for him.

It would appear that Bellini was most concerned that her first sleep-walking scene would have been too close a ‘brush with incest’. Some of the passages in Romani’s fair copy of the [excised Rodolfo-Amina] duet were in fact pressed to, if not beyond, the limit, a succession of unsustainable and risqué moral contradictions: only moments before revealing to be Amina’s father, Rodolfo seemed to have all but proposed to marry her (“I offer myself, if you choose, to sustain you all the better”), he who had “seduced and abandoned” a mother whose memory, even after acknowledging his paternity, he did not hesitate to exploit in subliminally scandalous terms (“As he [who is your father] embraces you it seems as though he were again embracing your mother”).

Adjustments were duly made to the “peculiar nobility” of Rodolfo in text and stage directions in act I (which unfortunately had already been sent to the publisher, Ricordi). Now Rodolfo mentioned only “the delightful beauties I once knew”, rather than “the
delightful beauty I once knew”.

The pair completed their mad dash by the 6th of March, with arguments and revisions continuing to the very day of the performance. This has led to many headaches for archivists later attempting to sort through the various incorrect copies of music and text in the possession of Ricordi, Bellini, and Romani to construct a definitive score. One might say that such a “definitive” form of the score is as elusive as a sleepwalker passing quickly through a darkened room at night.

(Quotations from La sonnambula, Ricordi critical edition. Della Seta, F., Roccatagliati, A., Zoppelli, L., eds. Milan: Ricordi, 2009.)