Having got Andrea Chenier out of the way, and after singing four performances of Medea in Rome, Callas started work on what might have seemed a surprising role for her, that of the sweet ingénue Amina in La Sonnambula; surprising, that is, until one recalls that Bellini wrote the opera for the very same singer who created Norma, Giuditta Pasta. Bellini’s favourite Amina was evidently Maria Malibran, who was also a great Norma, but where Norma had become the property of large voiced, dramatic sopranos, who often couldn’t cope with the florid demands of the role, Amina had gone to light voiced, bird-like soubrettes, who rarely brought any depth to the character. Like Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammemoor, La Sonnambula had become a vehicle for vocal display, nothing else, though this is clearly not what Bellini or his librettist, Romani, had in mind.
According to Romani,
The role of Amina, even though at first glance it may seem very easy to interpret, is perhaps more difficult than many others which are deemed more important. It requires an actress who is playful, ingenuous and innocent, and at the same time passionate, sensitive and amorous; who has a cry for joy and also a cry for sorrow, an accent for reproach and another for entreaty… This was the role created by Bellini’s intellect.
Used to the doll-like pipings of so many light voiced sopranos, Callas’s performances no doubt came as a revelation. She performed the role 22 times, always in the same La Scala Visconti production, which was revived in 1957, the same year she made her commercial recording of the opera, and travelled to Cologne and Edinburgh that same year too, though, by that time, Votto had replaced Bernstein as conductor and Nicola Monti had taken over from Cesare Valletti. Live recordings exist of both Cologne and Edinburgh, and my personal favourite has always been Cologne, where Callas, with slightly more limited resources, sings a more poetic, a gentler Amina; a portrait in pastels rather than oil.
However, I would never want to be without this thrilling La Scala recording, and to appreciate it fully, maybe a little background on the production would be helpful. Visconti, with his designer Piero Tosi, had sought to create a picture-book, dreamlike depiction of a nineteenth century village that never existed, the villagers dressed like ladies and gentlemen, the women in shades of pink, pearl and grey, and the men in black and white. Visconti’s vision of Amina was no village girl, but the evocation of a bejewelled nineteenth-century prima donna performing the role. She was costumed to look like the nineteenth century ballerina Maria Taglioni, and PIero Tosi recalls that when she made her entrance in the first sleepwalking scene, the impression she created was of “a sylphide tripping on the moonlight.”
Though one can see what Visconti was driving at, Callas’s genius ensures that at no point does she seem to be performing the role, so completely does she inhabit the character of sweet, trusting Amina, but it does explain some of the intricate variations Bernstein created for her, flung out to the Milanese audience with insouciant ease. Later performances under Votto would find some of the vocal display trimmed away. Bernstein also opens up some of the cuts reinstated by Votto, possibly because he had a tenor, Cesare Valletti, more capable of singing the music. Valletti is, in every way, far superior to Nicola Monti, who appears on the commercial recording and in the Cologne and Edinburgh performances.
Visconti undoubtedly built the production around Callas dramatically, just as Bernstein does musically. A trifle impatient with the choruses, he is wonderfully expansive in Amina’s solos, giving Callas time to shape and mould the phrases, their musical rapport absolutely as one.
From her first entry, Callas’s voice has a pearly softness, Come per me sereno exuding an inner happiness and fullness of heart that is at the core of her conception of Amina. For the cabaletta, Bernstein has given her some supremely ambitious embellishments, which she executes with staggering ease and agility, and the audience unsurprisingly give her a rousing reception.
But, as always with Callas, it is not just in the big set pieces that she excels. She is as inclined to make her mark in a word or line of recitative. I am thinking here of the way she imbues the words Il cor soltanto, when the Notary asks what she is bringing as dowry, with such love and trust and warmth. One should also note that Valletti is a worthy and distinguished partner, and, though he eschews some of the high notes written for the great Rubini, he proves himself to have been the perfect choice for the role. He makes a wonderfully sympathetic partner for Callas in the duet that ends the scene. A simple soul, his duping by the scheming Lisa becomes entirely believable,
Note also how Callas adopts a more veiled tone for the scenes in which she is sleepwalking, her confusion and terror when she wakes in the count’s bedroom palpably real. When Elvino rejects her, the pain she evinces is almost unbearable, her moulding of the phrases which launch the great ensemble, D’un pensiero e d’un accento couched in a legato which is meltingly poignant. In the allegro that follows, she lets out her full voice for the first time, as Amina’s desperation mounts, and caps the act with a ringing Eb in alt.
She has little to do in the opening scene of the last act, which belongs principally to the tenor, but she does much with what little she has, movingly concerned for Elvino even in the depths of her own pain.
It is in the final scene, though, where her gifts as a singing actress of the highest order are paramount. The range of colours she employs in the recitative is wide indeed, but she never destroys the dreamlike mood she has created. Certain phrases stand out in relief, like the pathos in her cry of Ah! Il mio anello and the heart-break in Questa d’un cor che more e l’ultima preghiera. The aria that follows, Ah non credea is a locus classicus of Callas’s art, couched in an almost seamless legato, its phrases spun out to prodigious lengths. The audience sit in rapt silence, totally drawn in and when, at its close, Elvino sings Ah piu non reggo, we too feel we can bear no more. This section worked well for Callas even as late as 1964 when she sang it on French TV. Elegantly coiffed and gowned though she is, and scarcely moving a muscle, she simply becomes the broken-hearted village girl Amina. This is the art that conceals art.
When Amina is awoken and the mood is broken, Callas breaks into the sparkling cabaletta, Ah non giunge with glittering abandon, executing the coloratura flourishes with coruscating brilliance. Some might feel that her singing here is too forceful, but again it is good to be reminded of what happened in Visconti’s production. He brought up all the lights, including La Scala’s huge central chandelier to full brilliance, and had Callas come down to the footlights, singing directly out into the audience, no longer Amina, but the great prima donna acknowledging her public. If there were still any doubt about the matter, this is the night that Callas was unequivocally crowned Regina della Scala.
As for the sound, I only have the old EMI version to hand for comparison, and can state that this Warner transfer is a good deal better than that. There are occasional moments of distortion and overload, but in general it is very listenable. Having listened to it again for the first time in several years, I now find it hard to chose between this one and the Cologne performance of 1957. How lucky we are to have both.