Like Mozart and Bizet, the composer Vincenzo Bellini died in his thirties, leaving his fans to speculate about what kind of operas he might have composed if he had lived a few decades longer — or if perhaps he might have taken early retirement from composing, as his colleague Rossini did.
Of the eleven operas Bellini actually did write, only four are regularly performed today, and I have seen only three of these:
La sonnambula (The sleepwalker, Milan, March 1831). My lead photos, at the top of this post, show the stage set for La sonnambula being assembled on a Saturday afternoon in 2005 in Leipzig, Germany, for that evening’s performance.
The story takes place in a mountain village in Switzerland, where the superstitious villagers believe there is a ghost who walks through their village at night. Actually it is Amina, who walks (and talks) in her sleep, which leads to numerous complications.
The role of Amina was sung in the world premiere 1831 by Giuditta Pasta, one of the outstanding sopranos of the nineteenth century, in fact Bellini composed the role with her in mind, giving her lots of very high notes and long, flowing melodies to show off her extraordinary capabilities.
The role in Leipzig in 2005 was sung by the Korean soprano Eun Yee You, who at that time was an ensemble member at the Leipzig Opera.
In Frankfurt nine years later, La sonnambula was not even scheduled until the planners were sure that Brenda Rae would be available to sing the title role.
Norma (Milan, December 1831). The world premiere of Norma came only nine months after La sonnambula. I have seen Norma in Karlsruhe, Berlin, Krefeld and Frankfurt, in four quite different productions.
Like all of Bellini’s operas, Norma is a bel canto opera. The singing is beautiful, but the plot is often criticized. The story takes place in ancient Gaul under the Roman occupation. Especially in the realistic Berlin staging, I kept expecting Asterix and Obelix to pop up from behind the bushes at any minute.
Norma is the head priestess of the Gauls, but she is secretly in love with the Roman governor and has even borne him two children. (We are asked to believe that nobody in the small Gallic village has noticed this.)
The Krefeld production avoided this problem by setting the action in a sort of generic early-twentieth-century dictatorship. They had Norma living in a large, impoverished city where it was more plausible that she could keep her relationship with the enemy governor a secret. But of course the music was exactly as Bellini wrote it, and so was the text by Felice Romani. (It was sung in Italian with German surtitles.)
More recently, I saw Norma in Frankfurt (2018) as staged by Christof Loy, with Elza van den Heever in the title role and Gaëlle Arquez as Adalgisa.
I puritani (The puritans, Paris 1835) has nothing to do with the Pilgrims who sailed to America on the Mayflower in 1620, landed at Plymouth Rock and founded the Plymouth Colony, nor with the Puritans who founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony a decade later. Rather, the story takes place in a fort near Plymouth, England, at a time of Civil War around 1650, with the Puritans pitted against the Royalists. Elvira, the daughter of a Puritan Lord, is in love with Auturo, a supporter of the Royalists.
The first time I saw I puritani was in the year 2000 at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, with Edita Gruberova (1946-2021) as Elvira. It was a marvelous performance, in which she fully lived up to her decades-long reputation, negotiating Bellini’s long melodies with little apparent effort and nonchalantly hitting all the high notes.
The lead tenor was not quite so successful. His role also demands numerous high notes, higher that most tenors can usually reach, and to sing them he switched from chest voice to falsetto and back again. Apparently this was standard procedure in Bellini’s time, but I had never heard it before and found it quite jarring, since his full, rich voice suddenly became thin and tinny on the falsetto notes.
In Frankfurt 2018, the role of Elvira was sung by Brenda Rae, a brilliant soprano who was born nearly forty years later than Edita Gruberova. After one of the performances, I told Brenda this was the first time I had ever seen her going barefoot for an entire opera, instead of just for a scene or two when her character was meant to be particularly vulnerable. She laughed and said that Elvira in this opera was always vulnerable, from beginning to end. Also that she loved going barefoot and immediately agreed when the stage director suggested it.
Fittingly, Brenda Rae was one of the singers who performed at an “Edita Gruberova Tribute” concert in Bratislava, Slovakia, in September 2022.
My lead photos for this post are from 2005. I revised the text in 2024.