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Music To Move The Soul:
Bellini Comes To Life in Detroit

By Susan W. Bowen

April 2008

La Sonnambula (The Sleepwalker)
Opera in two acts by Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835)

Libretto by Felice Romani (1788 -1865)
Premiered in Milan, 1831

Michigan Opera Theatre
March 29- April 6, 2008
Conductor: Richard Bonynge
Director: Renata Scotto

(Read more reviews at

Vincenzo Bellini

The world needs more bel canto singing! And we especially need more of Bellini’s bel canto operas, to nourish the soul and uplift the population, especially those oppressed by circumstances of economic crisis and political instability. “La Sonnambula” (The Sleepwalker), Vincenzo Bellini’s bel canto opera, produced under the skilled baton of Richard Bonynge and direction of soprano Renata Scotto, opened the Spring 2008 Michigan Opera Theater season in Detroit this March. Its final Sunday matinee performance was broadcast live over the local public radio station, but this beautiful performance of “La Sonnambula” should have been experienced by many more people, including those for whom the ticket prices were out of reach.

“La Sonnambula” is the pastoral tragic-comic opera composed by Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835) and librettist Felice Romani (1788-1865), which premiered in 1831 at the Teatro Carcano in Milan, just a few weeks after the composer’s 30th birthday. Unlike their other collaborations, which presented opera as classical tragedy in various historical settings of the past and addressed the burning issues of the day—nation building, overthrowing oppression, battling tyranny, political exile, and the conflicts of love and national duty that arise— La Sonnambula is always described as completely “non political.”

It is true that there are no invading armies or oppressive tyrants here, but there is a profound political lesson in this simple pastoral story, and the singers at the Michigan Opera Theater conveyed that intention of the composer quite powerfully. “La Sonnambula” celebrates reason over superstition, true love over spoken words of love, and it wages an effective attack against the senses being the unique arbiter of truth. With his genius for employing beautiful, long melodic lines, which require clean, meticulous shaping of tone and contrapuntal voice transparency, Bellini accomplished a breakthrough in composition, the germ of which is heard in the great dramatic operas of Giuseppe Verdi.

Bel Canto Opera

Photo by John Grigaitis
The Michigan Opera Theatre chorus with Ekaterina Siurina (Amina) and Kathleen Segar (Teresa)

Bel Canto, the traditional art of Italian singing which emphasizes elegant phrasing, shaping of tone, and technique is the most natural, beautiful, and most efficient way to sing. Discovered in the fifteenth century by the artist and scientist Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) and his circles, bel canto (“beautiful singing”) starts from the principle that the human singing voice is innately endowed with differentiated voice registers and other qualities, which allow a composer to utilize the full palette of vocal “colors” to express different ideas. With a properly placed and supported voice, the trained artist singing a classical work will use many possible shadings and coloration: the composer knows that each of the 6 different voice species (soprano, mezzo-soprano, contralto, tenor, baritone, bass) has a specific register break, and the registers (the range of intervals between the register breaks in each voice) are actually heard as different “colors.”

Photo by John Grigaitis
Ekaterina Siuirna as Amina and Charles Castronovo as Elvino

Other colorations may include dynamics (louder, softer), lightening or darkening the tone, shifting to a cantabile (sweetly singing) or a legato (a connected, smooth line) from a marcato or a staccato (short, unheld, rapidly articulated notes), and other ways of shaping the tone, corresponding to a change in the poetic text or dramatic idea. Vocal flexibility is only one aspect of bel canto; another is the “lasing effect”—the power that enables a complete opera to be performed without any extra amplification other than the singers’ own (biological) vocal apparatus!

An audience will perceive a clear register shift from the second to the third, high register as a “change in color.” Physically, the shift from the soprano’s first to second register, is located in the scale precisely where the tenor’s shift from second to third register occurs, which is between the F-F♯ above middle C, (with C tuned to the scientific tuning of C=256Hz, or A at 430.5- 432Hz.) Third register notes, when sung with the right “impostazione” (placement), have a particular brilliance, which is lost if the notes are shouted, or sung in the throat or the wrong register.

Michigan Opera Theater Production

Bellini wrote the parts of Amina for soprano Giuditta Pasta, and tenor Giovanni Rubini, singers whose range, expression, and vocal facility became famous throughout Europe. In this performance, the orchestra, conducted by Richard Bonynge, was tender enough to allow the singers to show off virtuoso capabilities in delivering the long Bellini lines, and successfully convey the innermost thoughts of the characters.

All the singers, as well as the chorus, were a delight to hear. Ekaterina Siurina’s Amina communicated the deep emotion that Bellini would have wanted to convey (see box), bringing tears to the eyes of many. Of special note was her florid but not over-embellished singing, which both hit the right notes, and the idea “between the notes.”

From the opening chorus and cavatina of Majeski’s Lisa, her duet with Carrico’s Alessio, right through to the final scene, the “long lines” of Bellini’s lovely melodies are made to appear effortless by the skilled bel canto singers. Segar’s mezzo soprano voice was well suited for Teresa, whose strong voice was audible in the ensembles, where the inner voices are often “mushed” together. Tenor Charles Castronuovo (Elvino) navigated his high register passages skillfully, singing “piano” (softly) when pouring his heart out, which was very effective.

The simplicity of Renata Scotto’s set and staging enabled the audience to focus on the idea, and the acting was quite fine, without a lot of superfluous motion to divert the focus from the singers. Richard Bonynge did not perform at the lower pitch, which would have been very interesting to hear: imagine what might an audience might have discovered had he used the Verdi pitch of C=256Hz.

The Plot

Based on a ballet by the same name, “La Sonnambula” is set in a Swiss village in the early 1800s, and opens with all the villagers, except Lisa, (Amanda Majeski, soprano) celebrating the wedding of the locals Amina (Ekaterina Siurina, soprano) and Elvino (Charles Castronovo, tenor) where the notary has signed the contract and Elvino gives Amina his deceased mother’s ring, to be finalized at the altar the next day. Lisa is the owner of the inn, who spurns Alessio (Seth Carrico, bass), a local peasant in love with her, in hopes of marrying the richer Elviro. Amina, raised by the mill owner, Teresa (Kathleen Segar, mezzosoprano), is an orphan, whose virtue and beauty has made her the shining light of the village. The festivites are interrupted by the arrival of an older stranger, actually Count Rodolfo (Andrew Gangestad, bass) on his way to the castle, who emotionally recalls the memories, scenes, and love of his youth. He is reminded of his young love by the beauty of the bride, sung here in very warmly, almost paternally, but which comments enrage the jealous groom. Rodolfo decides to stay the night at the inn, as Teresa warns the celebrants to disperse before the terrifying ghost that stalks the village comes out.

Photo by John Grigaitis
Ekaterina Siurina as Amina singing “Ah! non credea Mirati”

The Count dismisses the superstition of the villagers, but they all insist that they have all seen this mysterious, therefore dangerous phantom with their own eyes; the senses cannot be wrong. As Amina and Elvino leave, a second duet between them on Elvino’s jealousy (of the count, of the wind, of the brook, of everything) and on Amina’s pure and deep love; he promises to reform, and she gives him her heart always, even in slumber. This scene was beautifully done. In the Count’s room, Lisa recognizes the stranger as the long lost son of the recently deceased Count, and they begin a flirtation, interrupted by Amina entering his room through a window. Lisa leaves, and the Count realizes that Amina is sleepwalking, dreaming of Elvino. Amina falls asleep in his room, and the Count decides to make an exit. Meanwhile, the villagers, upon discovering that the stranger is actually the Count, come to honor him, and find Amina on his sofa. She awakens, confused, as an angry Elvino, brought in by Lisa, enters.

It’s clear as day to everyone that she has been unfaithful; after all, the proof is right there before their very own eyes to see! She cannot explain her presence, in her nightclothes, in the room of the Count who had “flirted” with her earlier. They are shocked, but everyone can see she is guilty. Elvino calls off the wedding.

Act II opens in the woods with the villagers traveling to see the Count, who can help them verify Amina’s innocence. Amina meets Elvino on the way, who angrily takes back his ring. Even after the Count has affirmed Amina’s innocence, the enraged Elvino refuses to believe him, and decides to take Lisa to the altar instead. Teresa arrives and asks the group to be more quiet, as Amina has finally fallen asleep after crying through the night. She learns of Elvino’s plan to marry Lisa, she spills the beans, and produces Lisa’s scarf found in the Count’s room, and continues to assert Amina’s virtue. Elvino is not convinced. But then he sees the sleepwalking Amina, to the terror of all, walking on a rickety bridge, or in this production, a rickety branch, part of which falls off. It’s too dangerous to wake her, so they all watch with bated breath, as the virtue of her own soul is expressed in song as she relives the joy and the horror of her wedding, and then her rejection by Elvino. They watch until she walks to safety, to the rejoicing of all. The music of the finale encompasses the melodic ideas that preceded it.


The composer and librettist had orginally wanted to compose Hugo’s “Hernani,” but they could not get it past the censors—that subject had to wait for Verdi. By 1831, Bellini and Romani had worked together on four other operas, Il Pirata (1827), La Straniera (1829), Zaira (1829), and I Capuleti e i Montecchi in 1830, and also a revision of Bianca e Fernando called Bianca e Gernando in 1828, all of which had elements dealing with the complexities that arise when love conflicts with patriotic duty, themes which resonated with the Italian populace of the 1820s and 1830s. I Capuleti e i Montecchi is based on the same story as Shakespeare’s more famous “Romeo and Juliet.”

The 1830 attempts at national sovereignty had failed in Italy and Poland, and many Italians, then subjects of various kingdoms, including the Austrian empire’s repressive regime, were ready for the ideas of Benjamin Franklin’s “Povero Riccardo.” It was a very political time in Europe, and many American patriots, artists and writers were traveling through Italy in this period of the late 1820s through the 1830s. American painter Samuel Morse was in Italy, as was opera aficionado James Fenimore Cooper, who published the “The Bravo” in 1831. Cooper participated in the inaugural, annual celebration for George Washington’s birthday in Rome, in 1830, at the residence of Vittorio Alfieri (1749-1803), where hopes were high for the Polish and Italian (failed) struggles, and speeches were made calling for support of the fight. (Alfieri was the famous nationalist Italian poet and playwright whose plays promoted the American Revolutionary ideal, and who dedicated his odes to George Washington. Alfieri’s was introduced in America by Mozart’s librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte.)

“Culture, so identified, has two principal aspects. On the one side, culture, as expressed as language-culture, especially as truly Classical modes of music, drama, and poetry, and in science, is a more powerful expression in nature, intrinsically so, than any political government. At the same time, the innate creative powers of men and women, afford mankind the capacity to make willful changes of the characteristics of its cultures, and its governments.” (Lyndon H. LaRouche, Jr. EIR, London’s Brutish Fairy-Tale, January 11, 2008)

Many artists in the 1830s, like Chopin, for example, did not make dramatic public speeches about politics, but their artistic works, like Bellini’s creations, make clear where their passions lie. One need not have heard Bellini singing Italian patriotic songs about liberty during his short stay in London in 1833, as his friends reported, to know his stand with respect to the human condition.

One researcher located Romani’s original draft of the “La Sonnambula” libretto, which he found to be more in keeping with Bellini’s thread—it presented Rodolfo not just as an expatriate, but rather “an exile returned to his native land after a long absence.” The young nobleman Rodolfo fell in love with a village maiden, fathered a child out of wedlock, and was banished by his parents as a result. The maiden, after giving birth, died of grief and shame. The child of this union was none other than the opera’s heroine, Amina. Although this aspect of the plot was dropped, there are still traces of it in the final version of the libretto: Amina remains an orphan, and when Rodolfo meets her, he sees in her eyes a reflection of the beautiful young woman he loved so many years back.

The libretto was reworked, and “La Sonnambula” was a success. The English language premiere opened in London in May 1, 1833 and in New York in November 1835, and it premiered in Italian in New York eleven years later, in May 1844. Only 9 months after presenting “La Sonnambula,” Bellini and Romani presented the sublime operatic masterpiece “Norma,” again with Pasta and Rubini in the title roles. Ironically, “Norma” was considered a “flop” at its La Scala premiere in December 1831, but went on to become known as one of the greatest works in opera repertoire. Composer and librettist then created Beatrice di Tenda in 1833, their last collaboration, due to a falling out. They reconciled and hoped to produce more masterpieces, and might have, had the composer not died so young. Bellini’s last opera, I Puritani, premiered in 1835 in Paris, where the composer had moved after a short stay in London in 1833. His librettist was the exiled Italian revolutionary Carlo Pepoli, whom he met at one of the intellectual salons he frequented there.


Bellini was born in Catania, Sicily, into a very musical family. His musical talents were soon discovered, and reports abound of his abilities to play while still a toddler. He was composing as early as age 6. He needed better musical education, so the local Catania government sponsored his study at the Naples Conservatory. He left Sicily in 1819, and studied there under Maestro Zingarelli, working through the masters of the Neapolitan school and the orchestral works of Haydn and Mozart. Bellini’s first opera, “Adelson e Salvini” was composed for his 1825 graduation from the Conservatory, after which he received a commission for “Bianca e Gernando". With that success, he got an offer from the impresario for an opera at La Scala in Milan. Here Bellini began his wonderful collaboration with the poet Felice Romani, mentioned above, and also with the singers with whom he worked closely until his death.

Bellini was in Milan from 1827 to 1833. He went to London to oversee his opera productions in 1833, stayed for a few months, and moved on to Paris, which had by then become the musical center of Europe. Bellini’s command of spoken French was poor, and he was not very comfortable in these circles, and it was here that he first became familiar with Beethoven’s works. His social circle included Fredrick Chopin, the Polish nationalist composer, who composed for piano as Bellini wrote for the voice: his nocturnes were to be “bel canto for the pianoforte.” The poet and writer Heinrich Heine, after describing the youthful Bellini and his physical characteristics in unflattering tones, wrote, “It was only at a later period, when I had been acquainted with Bellini for some time, that I felt any inclination toward him. This resulted from the discovery that his character was, throughout, noble and good. His mind had certainly remained pure and unsullied by contact with evil. He was endowed also with that harmonic, good-natured, that child-like nature, which is never found wanting in men of genius, even if they do not expose it to the gaze of all mankind” (1837 Florentine Nights).

It was Bellini’s creative genius that gave Heine concern that Bellini might follow his fellow young geniuses Mozart and Schubert to the grave too early. Unfortunately, he did, and all of Europe mourned the loss of the “Sicilian swan.”1 Bellini left us ten operas, Italian “lieder” for voice and piano, and a unique contribution to vocal music and drama that was later advanced by Verdi’s own genius.

After experiencing this wonderful opera, in the beautiful but partially empty opera house, it became glaringly obvious that the future of culture in American life is the more general question that is begged. A number of young people who had hoped to attend the opera were unable to afford ticket, given the current economic situation. And although the Michigan Opera Theater impresario Dr. DiChiera and associates have reached out to local schools and Detroit communities with programs to interest students in opera and classical singing, it is simply not sufficient.

Availing society of such fundamental contributions as Bellini’s work is critical for the soul of our nation. The USA needs a national cultural imperative, like the one developed as part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s WPA program (see box), and the one developed right after Sputnik, under the auspices of NASA. In those times of national mobilization, not only was the industrial infrastructure developed, but the educational and cultural “infrastructure”—the creative capacity of society was developed as well. The government knew it needed to marshal the cultural resources of the USA in order to change the prevailing cultural axioms, so it funded programs to celebrate American and other artistic contributions. Still today, most of the museums in the nation’s capitol remain free of charge and open to the public. It’s exciting to imagine the profound impact on society were we to begin bel canto training in American schools, and provide public performances of opera and other classical music.

Creating an audience for such wonderful works as “La Sonnambula” and other classical bel canto opera, in a live opera setting, will assist us greatly in developing our republic, and saving it from the same oligarchic enemies that Bellini and Romani opposed.



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Vincenzo Bellini : “I study attentively the dispositions of the characters, the passions which sway them and the sentiments which they express. Possessed by the feelings of each of them, I imagine myself for the moment to have become the one who is speaking, and I make an effort to feel like him, and to express myself in his manner. Knowing that music results from the employment of a variety of sounds, and that the passions of mankind manifest themselves by means of utterance of diverse tones, I have reproduced the language of passion in my art through incessant observation.

“Then in the seclusion of my study, I begin to declaim the parts of the different characters of the drama with the utmost warmth, observing in the meanwhile all the inflections of my voice, the degree of haste or languor in their delivery—the accent, in short—and the tone of expression which nature gives to the man who is in the throes of emotion; and I find in this way the musical motives and tempi best adapted to their communication to others through the medium of sounds.

“I transfer the results to paper, try it on the piano, and if I feel in it the corresponding emotion, I consider myself to have succeeded. If I do not, then I begin again.”

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Franklin Delano Roosevelt spoke at the dedication of the National Gallery of Art, on March 17, 1941, as the United States was gearing up for war, a war that was already devastating Europe, and which would soon draw the United States into its cauldron: “The people of this country know now, whatever they were taught or thought they knew before, that art is not something just to be owned, but something to be made: that it is the act of making and not the act of owning that is art. And knowing this they know also that art is not a treasure in the past or an importation from another land, but part of the present life of all the living and creating peoples, all who make and build; and, most of all, the young and vigorous peoples who have made and built our present wide country.

“It is for this reason that the people of America accept the inheritance of these ancient arts. Whatever these paintings may have been to men who looked at them generations back, today they are not only works of art. Today they are the symbols of the human spirit, symbols of the world the freedom of the human spirit has made, and, incidentally, a world against which armies now are raised and countries overrun and men imprisoned and their work destroyed.

“To accept, today, the work of German painters such as Holbein and Duerer, of Italians like Botticelli and Raphael, of painters of the Low Countries like Van Dyck and Rembrandt, and of famous Frenchmen, famous Spaniards—to accept this work today for the people of this democratic Nation is to assert the belief of the people of this democratic Nation in a human spirit which now is everywhere endangered and which, in many countries where it first found form and meaning, has been rooted out and broken and destroyed.

“To accept this work today is to assert the purpose of the people of America that the freedom of the human spirit and human mind, which has produced the world’s great art and all its science shall not be utterly destroyed. . . .

“The dedication of this Gallery to a living past, and to a greater and more richly living future, is the measure of the earnestness of our intention that the freedom of the human spirit shall go on, too.”

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1 Donizetti composed a beautiful Italian “lied” entitled, “A lament on the Death of Bellini”, entitled, “A lament on the Death of Bellini”, for Maria Malibran and piano, to words by the poet Andrea Maffei. Maffei, a very close friend of Giuseppi Verdi, was the person most responsible for translating and promoting the works of Friedrich Schiller into Italy.