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ClassicsOnline Home » BELLINI, V.: Sonnambula (La) (Callas, Monti, La Scala, Votto) (1957)
Visconti’s sensational 1955 production of La sonnambula for La Scala, Milan, was revived and recorded two years later. As a girl, Callas had fallen in love with the rôle of Amina; as an adult it suited her voice perfectly, and her interpretation set a benchmark that few have equalled. Among the many highlights of Callas’s profoundly satisfying performance is her cadenza for Ah non giunge in which she executes a remarkable diminuendo on a stratospheric E-flat, a feat unrivalled in the history of the gramophone.This is by any standards a classic recording.
By David Denton
Vincenzo Bellini (1801–1835)
Amina - Maria Callas (soprano)
Teresa - Fiorenza Cossotto (mezzo-soprano)
Count Rodolfo - Nicola Zaccaria (bass)
Elvino - Nicola Monti (tenor)
Lisa - Eugenia Ratti (soprano)
Alessio - Giuseppe Morresi (bass)
A Notary - Franco Ricciardi (tenor)
Unlike many of the other complete operas that Callas had hitherto made under the aegis of La Scala, Milan, this recording is of a production of La sonnambula that actually took place there at that time. It was by the great stage director Luchino Visconti. First mounted two years earlier Visconti conceived it to give an impression of turning the leaves of an album of old prints. He had Callas arrayed as those legendary Aminas, Maria Malibran (1808–1836) or Giulietta Grisi (1811–1869) might have been; dressed as a simple village maiden, but with a diva’s diamonds. Before the second verse of Amina’s final scena, Ah! non giunge, he had her come down to the front of the stage and, with the house lights turned on, give an exhibition of virtuosity—the lavish variants she interpolated were unheard of then before the bel canto revival was underway and they certainly raised critical eyebrows. After the final curtain, in early nineteenth-century style, the evening was completed with two short ballets.
The sensation created by the whole production caused it to be given ten times in 1955 and led to the revival in 1957 of a further six performances, during which time this recording was made at Milan’s Basilica of Santa Eufemia, after which the complete production, together with singers and orchestra, travelled abroad and gave two performances at Cologne and four at Edinburgh. A fifth La sonnambula announced at Edinburgh took place but with Renata Scotto (b. 1934). Much fuss was made that Callas had capriciously cancelled, but Meneghini, in Maria Callas mia moglie later disputes this, telling how Robert Ponsonby, the festival Director, knew her contract was for only four performances; certainly it seems more than a coincidence that Scotto should have just happened to have been there. But then Callas was Callas and the media loves a story, whether this one was true or not is irrelevant.
Elvira de Hidalgo (1888–1980), a coloratura soprano, remembers when Callas was a girl and she was studying with her, how she heard another of her pupils in an excerpt from Amina’s music and declared that she wanted to sing it. By this stage of her career, when Callas reduced her appearances considerably, her voice is ideally suited to it, because, unlike Turandot, which would be her next recording, it demands from her no more than the natural size of her voice. Whatever reservations may have been made about her Maddalena in Andrea Chénier, Madama Butterfly and Fedora, all of which she sang on stage, and in which she was intentionally, or otherwise, competing with Renata Tebaldi (1922–2004), her voice was exactly suited to Amina. She reveals the perfect placement of her instrument, the kind of felicity that disguises art: her voice is easily produced, her tone effortlessly supported and her phasing a model. She differentiates lucidly between chromatic and diatonic scale passages and her trills are exactly responsive in tones and semitones. It is not necessary for us to know these details precisely but the musical finish of her singing is obvious. One stunning effect comes between the verses of Ah non giunge where she interpolates a cadenza ascending to E flat above top C. On this stratospheric note, remarkably, she contrives to execute a diminuendo, a feat unrivalled in the history of the gramophone.
Eugenia Ratti (b.1933) made her début at Sestri Levante in 1954. The following year she joined the company at La Scala, Milan, as Lisa in Visconti’s famous production of Bellini’s La sonnambula in which Callas sang. Thereafter, through the rest of the 1950s, a typical soubrette, she progressed through rôles such as the Priestess in Aida, Oscar and Zerlina, and took part in the first performances at La Scala of Milhaud’s David and Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites. She made a visit to the Holland Festival in 1955 and appeared in 1959 at San Francisco and Dallas, where she deputised for Callas’s Rosina in Zeffirelli’s production of Il barbiere di Siviglia. The mezzo-soprano Fiorenza Cossotto (b.1935) made her début at La Scala in 1957 as Sister Mathilde in Dialogues des Carmélites, making regular appearances in the same house until 1973. She made her Covent Garden début in 1959 when she appeared with Callas in Cherubini’s Médée. Her career took her to major opera houses throughout the world, with effective performances in rôles that included those of Azucena, Amneris, Eboli and Adalgisa.
Nicola Monti (b.1920) made his début in Florence in 1941, but his operatic début took place only in 1951 at the San Carlo in Naples, when he appeared as Elvino in La sonnambula, a rôle with which he remained associated throughout his career, repeating it at Wexford in 1952 and recording it both with Callas and, later, with Joan Sutherland.
Born in Athens, after studying at the Conservatory, Nicola Zaccaria (1923–2007), made his début in 1949 as Raimondo in Lucia di Lammermoor. Four years later he appeared at La Scala, Milan, as Sparafucile in Rigoletto. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s he appeared in many leading Italian opera seasons: at Florence, Verona and Rome in the typical Italian repertory. In 1956 he was a guest at the Vienna Staatsoper and at the festival in Salzburg; and in 1957 at Covent Garden with Callas’s Norma he was Oroveso and in 1959 Creon with her Medea. His career was wide and embraced Cologne, Brussels, Ghent, Moscow, Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro, Monte Carlo, Berlin and Dallas, which he returned to often until the 1980s, as well as festivals at Aix-en-Provence, Edinburgh, Orange and Athens. He sang rôles such as Zaccaria in Nabucco, Silva in Ernani, Rodolfo in La sonnambula and Sarastro in Zauberflöte. For EMI he appears with Callas in recordings of Aida, Un ballo in maschera, Il trovatore, La bohème, Il barbiere di Siviglia, La sonnambula and Norma.
Born at Piacenza, Antonino Votto (1896–1985) was a student at the Conservatorio San Pietro a Majella, Naples. Following army service in World War I, in 1919 he commenced his career, as pianist giving recitals there and in Rome. The same year he began teaching the piano in Trieste, where he also made his début as a conductor. In 1921 Ettore Panizza engaged him to conduct at the Colón, Buenos Aires. Back in Europe again in 1923 he joined the company at La Scala, Milan, conducting Manon Lescaut; thereafter he acted as Toscanini’s assistant until 1929. Throughout the 1930s he appeared at Covent Garden and elsewhere in Europe as well as still giving occasional piano recitals in Italy. After World War II he began to conduct regularly at La Scala, Milan. His complete recordings made for EMI, Cetra and DGG include Gioconda, La bohème, Un ballo in maschera, La sonnambula and La traviata.
Author of Maria Meneghini Callas
 The scene is set in a Swiss village. Teresa’s mill is seen in the background, with the mill-stream. The sounds of celebration are heard, with instruments echoing from the distance and villagers shouting ‘Viva! Amina!’, happy at her betrothal.  Lisa comes out of the inn, complaining that this is no happy day for her. While all is joy and merriment, she suffers. She is interrupted by the appearance of fellowvillagers, with their instruments and flowers. She resumes her song.  Lisa is further troubled, amid the celebrations, by the unwelcome attentions of the villager Alessio, who accuses her of avoiding him. She, however, has no time for him, angry that her rival Amina has captured the heart of Elvino. The villagers continue to sing the praises of Amina and her betrothed, Elvino.  Amina joins the villagers, addressing her dear companions and thanking them for their words. She is grateful above all to her mother, the woman who adopted her as an orphan.  She welcomes the day and the people wish her happiness.  She embraces Teresa, the woman who has brought her up, takes her hand and puts it over her heart.  Alessio congratulates her, he more than anyone, for he has written the song for her and assembled the musicians. She thanks him, grateful for his kindness, hoping that he too will soon be happy with Lisa. Lisa, however, demurs, and Teresa condemns her hypocrisy, when she talks of love ending in bitterness. The notary arrives.  The notary is followed by Elvino, delayed by a visit to his mother’s grave to seek a blessing on his wife. Now his friends must witness the betrothal contract which the notary is preparing. Elvino offers her, as gifts to his future bride, his farms and possessions, and she, in return, offers her heart.  As Teresa and the witnesses sign the contract, Elvino gives Amina a ring.  All, except Lisa, are happy at these events.  Elvino tells Amina that the next morning they will be married, but the sound of an approaching horse is heard and a stranger appears.  Count Rodolfo, accompanied by two servants, complains of the tiring journey. Lisa tells him that he is still three miles away from the castle and should spend the night at the village inn, which he claims he already knows, with the mill, the stream, the woods and the nearby farm. He remembers earlier days he had spent here, days now gone beyond recall. The villagers tell him of the betrothal and he finds Amina lovely and attractive, remembering his own love of old. The villagers remark on this gallantry, less acceptable to Lisa and, above all, to Elvino.  In answer to Elvino’s question the Count explains that he had been there before with the lord of the castle. Teresa recalls how the old lord, who had died four years ago, once had a son, but he had vanished. The Count tells her that the son is still alive and promises that one day they shall all see him. The sound of a bagpipe is heard, calling the flocks in, and Teresa warns the villagers that night is drawing in.  This is the time, they all explain, when the ghost appears, a figure in white, with long hair and burning eyes.  The Count is sceptical but tells them that the time will come when such phantoms will no longer be seen, but now he will rest, and he goes with Lisa into the inn, after bidding Amina farewell.  Amina and Elvino are left alone, and he is about to leave her without saying goodbye. He is annoyed at the attention she has received from the stranger, but begs her pardon. 17 He explains that he is jealous even of the breeze that stirs her hair. They are reconciled, banishing any doubts, and promising to think and dream of each other until the morning.
 The scene is a room in the inn, with a window at the back, a door at one side and on the other a closet, with a small table and a sofa. The Count is alone and is later joined by Lisa. At first he expresses to himself his pleasure at staying in the village, and at the two girls, Amina and his pretty inn-keeper, Lisa. To his annoyance, Lisa has recognised him as the Count and tells him that the villagers are gathering to pay him proper respects. He goes on to joke with her, praising her beauty. A sound is heard and she runs into the other room, dropping her scarf. The Count throws it onto the sofa.  Amina appears, entering the room slowly, sleep-walking. The Count now understands the nature of the ghost that haunts the village. Amina, in her sleep, calls on Elvino, worried in her dreams by his jealousy and assuring him of her love. The Count goes to shut the window, while Lisa, from the closet, oberves what is happening and, realising the chance she now has of discrediting her rival, slips away unseen.  The Count makes to run towards Amina, then stops. She dreams of her wedding and her beloved Elvino, tempting the Count’s resistance. She raises her hand and swears faithfulness to her husband. The Count is about to go, but hearing people approach, leaves through the window, which he shuts. Amina lies on the sofa, still sleeping.  The villagers approach and, finding the door of the room open, go in. They see a figure on the sofa and realise that this is not the Count but a woman.  Now Teresa, Elvino and Lisa come in, he refusing to believe what Lisa has told him and then horrified to see Amina lying there. She wakes, to be immediately rejected by Elvino, turning for comfort to her mother.  Amina is innocent in thought and word, as she assures him, but no-one will believe her, except Teresa, who picks up Lisa’s scarf and puts it round Amina’s throat, thinking it is hers.  Elvino tells her that there will be no wedding and Amina is distressed at his distrust of her, declaring her innocence, while he reproaches her faithless heart. As the others go, Amina falls into the arms of Teresa.
 The scene is a wood. Some villagers come in, heading for the castle, where they hope to persuade the Count to defend Amina’s reputation, summoning up their courage to speak to him.  Amina and Teresa come onto the scene, as the others go, intent on the same purpose, although Amina is affected by the place, so near to Elvino’s farm.  He appears and he and Amina speak together, Elvino still admant, she swearing her innocence.  Voices are heard praising the Count, who is coming to tell Elvino of Amina’s innocence.  Elvino cannot hate Amina, but is still angry and takes from her the ring he had given her, leaving in despair, while Teresa and Amina go off in another direction.
[Back in the village Alessio protests his love for Lisa, who still rejects him. He hopes to enlist the Count’s aid in his cause, but now voices are heard welcoming Lisa as Elvino’s bride, instead of Amina, to Lisa’s delight, expressed in her gratitude for these good wishes.]  In a scene with Lisa, Elvino assures her of his love, seeking her pardon for deserting her. The Count arrives in the nick of time, as Alessio observes, willing to guarantee Amina’s honesty. He goes on to explain about the mysteries of sleep-walking.  Elvino is unwilling to believe what he is told, and the villagers too find this incredible. Teresa now intervenes, with Lisa’s scarf, found in the Count’s bedroom. The revelation of Lisa’s actions causes Elvino to let her hand go.  The Count repeats his assurance of Amina’s innocence, while Elvino seeks proof.  At this moment Amina is seen, stepping from the mill window, in her sleep. She walks across the bridge over the mill-stream, in danger of her life, while they all watch her spellbound and terrified. Elvino is held back from rushing to her by the Count. She walks along a rotten beam by the side of the mill-wheel, still talking of Elvino, the husband she fears she has lost, wishing that she might see him again once more. She kneels, praying for Elvino’s happiness, and looks at her hand, as if searching for the ring that Elvino had given her.  Taking from her breast flowers, withered after one day, she wonders that, like Elvino’s love, they have faded so soon.  Elvino approaches her and puts the ring back on her finger. Amina asks her mother to embrace her, and the Count now signals to Teresa to approach and embrace her, while Elvino is prostrate at her feet. The outburst of the villagers wakes her and she asks where she is. Elvino assures her that she is awake, not dreaming.  In final rejoicing Amina finds that human thought cannot imagine her happiness, a happiness in which all now join.
The principal source for the complete recording of La sonnambula was a first edition British LP pressing, supplemented by patches from a later edition. There are several instances of distortion, thumps, pops and other extraneous noises inherent in the original master tape (they can also be heard in EMI’s own CD transfer) and are not a function of the LP source used here. The arias in the appendix were taken from a first edition British LP pressing.
Viva! Viva Amina! (Chorus)
Tutto è gioia, tutto è festa (Lisa, Chorus, Alessio)
In Elvezia, non v’ha rosa (Chorus, Lisa, Alessio)
Care compagne (Amina, Chorus)
Come per me sereno…Sempre, o felice Amina (Amina, All)
Sovra il sen la man mi posa (Amina, All)
Il più di tutti, o Amina (Alessio, Amina, Lisa, Teresa, Notary)
Perdona, o mia diletta (Elvino, Amina, All, Notary)
Prendi: l’anel ti dono (Elvino)
Scritti nel ciel già sono…Ah! vorrei trovar parole (All, Elvira, Amina, Lisa)
Domani, appena aggiorni (Elvino, All, Amina)
Come noioso e lungo il cammin…Vi ravviso, o luoghi ameni…È gentil, leggiadra molto (Rodolfo, Lisa, All)
Contezza del paese (Elvino, Rodolfo, Teresa, Chorus)
A fosco cielo, a notte bruna (Chorus, Rodolfo, Teresa, Amina, Elvino)
Basta così. Ciascuno si attenga (Rodolfo, Teresa, All, Elvino)
Elvino! E me tu lasci (Amina, Elvino)
Son gelosa del zefiro errante (Elvino, Amina)
Davver, non mi dispiace (Rodolfo, Lisa)
Che veggio? (Rodolfo, Amina, Lisa)
O ciel! che tento? (Rodolfo, Amina)
Osservate: l’uscio è aperto (Chorus)
(Elvino, Chorus, Lisa, Amina)
D’un pensiero e d’un accento (Amina, Elvino, Chorus, Alessio, Teresa)
Non più nozze (Elvino, All, Amina, Lisa)
Qui la selva è più folta ed ombrosa
Reggimi, o buona madre
Vedi, o madre…è afflitto e mesto
Viva il Conte!
(Distant Voices, Elvino, Amina, Teresa, Chorus)
Ah! perché non posso odiarti
(Elvino, Teresa, Chorus)
E fia pur vero, Elvino
(Lisa, Elvino, Rodolfo, Alessio, All)
Signor Conte, agli occhi miei
(Elvino, Rodolfo, Chorus, Lisa, Teresa)
Signor?…che creder deggio?
(Elvino, Rodolfo, Teresa, Chorus)
Oh! se una volta sola
(Amina, Rodolfo, Teresa, All)
Ah! non credea mirarti
No, più non reggo
(Elvino, Amina, Rodolfo, Chorus)
Ah! non giunge uman pensiero (Amina, All)
Callas Sings Arias from Medea and La Vestale
Dei tuoi figli (Act 1)
SPONTINI: La Vestale
Tu che invoco (Act 2)
O Nume, tutelar (Act 2)
Caro oggetto (Act 3)
Orchestra of La Scala, Milan • Tullio Serafin
Recorded 10–12 June 1955
in the Teatro alla Scala, Milan
First issued on Columbia 33CX 1540
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BELLINI, V.: Sonnambula (La) (Callas, Monti, La Sc...