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Innocence Rewarded: Bellini's 'La Sonnambula'

Vincenzo Bellini was only 33 years old when he died in 1835, and he had already become an operatic superstar. Still, judging from his operas, he doesn't seem to have been a happy-go-lucky kind of guy -- at least when it came to choosing his subject matter.

Until La Sonnambula, and after it as well, all of Bellini's mature works were designated as serious operas. They all featured betrayal, backstabbing, heartbreak and graphic death: throat-slitting, poison, immolation -- you name it.

Bellini's first big hit was The Pirate, with a story of tragic love, blackmail, and murder. His next one was The Stranger, where a despondent lover stabs himself to death -- in the middle of his own wedding! Then there's Norma, Bellini's best known opera. Here, the title character is burned alive after falling for the wrong guy.

So when the lead character in Bellini's La Sonnambula is discovered in the wrong man's bed, it makes sense that she's probably headed for a similar, sad end. But, not this time. La Sonnambula is all about innocence. And even when that innocence seems false, it turns out to be a simple mistake -- understandably made, and easily corrected.

When Bellini wrote La Sonnambula, he was trying to get around some persnickety censors -- a sort of Italian "ratings council" -- who had just nixed his latest project. He'd been working on a setting of Ernani, a bloody, Victor Hugo story about death and betrayal.

So, when that one got canned just a couple of months before opening night, Bellini turned to a tale so innocuous that even its bad behavior is really nothing of the sort. Why was the young lady dozing in the wrong man's room? She'd been sleepwalking -- it could happen to anybody! In the hands of another composer, the whole thing might seem silly and simpleminded. But the innocence of its sentiment is the perfect complement to the inspired purity of Bellini's melodic style.

On World of Opera, Lisa Simeone presents La Sonnambula in a production starring soprano Natalie Dessay as Amina, the sleepwalker, from the Bastille Opera in Paris.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive.

Copyright 2010 WDAV

Bruce Scott
Bruce Scott is supervising producer of World of Opera. He also produces NPR's long-running, annual special Chanukah Lights, with Susan Stamberg and Murray Horwitz.