Vincenzo Bellini’s sixth opera, La Sonnambula, received its triumphant premiere at the Teatro Carcano, Milan, on March 6, 1831. The cast for that first performance included Giuditta Pasta as Amina, Giovanni Battista Rubini as Elvino, and Luciano Mariani as Count Rodolfo. As was common practice at the time, the opera shared a double bill with the ballet Tutto al contrario, choreographed by Louis Henry to music by Giacomo Panizza.
On March 7, Bellini sent news of the debut to his friend, Alessandro Lamperi:
“Here you have the happy news of the uproarious success of my opera last evening at the Carcano. I say nothing about the music; you will see that in the press. I assure you that Rubini and Pasta are two angels who enraptured the whole audience to the verge of madness.”
The Russian composer Mikhail Glinka, who was in attendance that night, found the experience similarly moving:
“Finally, at the end of the Carnival, there came what everyone had been waiting for: Bellini’s La Sonnambula. Despite the fact that it was presented late and regardless of the envious ones and the ill-wishers, this opera did make a tremendous impression. In the few performances given before the theaters closed, Pasta and Rubini sang with the most evident enthusiasm to support their favorite [composer]; in the second act the singers themselves wept and carried their audience along with them, so that in the happy days of Carnival tears were continually being wiped away in boxes and parquet alike…I. too, shed tears of emotion and ecstasy.”
The critic for the Milanese tri-weekly L’Eco also joined in the chorus of praise:
“If we had the time that we do not have to prepare an article describing this performance, we would not begin it when coming from the theater still deafened by the flood of plaudits, shouts, outcries, and acclamations. Indeed, we, who make a profession of not allowing ourselves to be seduced easily, could not help joining in the general enthusiasm….Examples of like applause have been few. The Maestro [Bellini] and the singers were called out twelve, fifteen, or twenty times–we really do not know–onto the stage. Bellini has sustained his reputation, Rubini sang like an angel, and it was reserved for Madam Pasta to transform the majesty of [Rossini’s] Semiramide and profound sensibility of [Donizetti’s] Anna Bolena so admirably into the simple and ingenuous graces of a young country girl. After her duet with Rubini, it could truly be said ‘That is the way to sing.'”
In July, 1831, La Sonnambula opened at the King’s Theatre, London, with Pasta and Rubini reprising their roles, and on October 24th of that same year, they appeared once again as Amina and Elvino when the opera was presented at Paris’s Théâtre-Italien. Over the next decade, it would be performed in Florence, Palermo, Budapest, Rome, Bolgona, Madrid, Naples, Vienna, Prague, New York, Boston, Havana, Mexico City, Philadelphia, Berlin, Dublin, St. Petersburg, Algiers, St. Louis, Antwerp, Brussels, Amsterdam, New Orleans, Athens, Warsaw, Vera Cruz, and Constantinople.
In honor of the opera’s 178th anniversary–as well as its current run at the Met–here are a few of my favorite recorded excerpts.
Amelita Galli-Curci – “A te, diletta, tenera madre…Come per me sereno” (1920)
Mirella Freni, Nicolai Gedda – “Son geloso del zeffiro errante” (1968)
Claudia Muzio – “Ah! non credea mirarti” (1935)
Joan Sutherland – “Ah! non giunge uman pensiero” (1962)
I won’t identify the singer in this last clip, but feel free to take a guess if you’d like. You may be very surprised to find out who it is.
Mystery Singer – “Come per me sereno”