It's so lovely, only the star will `sleep'


One little pill, and the opera would be over in a flash.

Luckily, folks didn't know all that much about sleep disorders, or their treatments, back in 1831 when Vincenzo Bellini wrote his first masterpiece, La Sonnambula - the Sleepwalker. Nor did people have much trouble with the suspension-of-disbelief business that is such an unavoidable part of the operatic genre, so this endearing work had no trouble becoming an international hit.

Today, though, audiences are perhaps less inclined to swallow a plot that hinges upon a somnambulistic maiden in Switzerland named Amina who winds up in a strange man's bedroom and has a heck of a time proving her innocence to her betrothed, let alone her fellow villagers.

But to dismiss this Swiss miss and her travails, just because of a little plot thinness, would be awfully foolish.

La Sonnambula, which the Baltimore Opera Company stages for the first time this week, stands as one of the finest achievements in the early 19th-century Italian genre known as bel canto (literally, "beautiful singing"), with its long, winding melodic lines and demands on singers for the utmost in technical polish and artistic taste.

Bellini's particular genius for spinning out this kind of music scaled exquisite heights here. He expanded the expressive possibilities of operatic song, nowhere more compellingly than in Amina's final aria, which broke new stylistic ground by avoiding melodic repetition; the music just keeps unfolding, each phrase more beautiful than the last.

La Sonnambula falls into a particular type of bel canto opera somewhere between tragic and comic. The term "melodrama" was applied by the composer, but that word didn't carry the negative implications it does today. Essentially, it's a slice-of-rustic-life opera involving more or less believable characters who act in more or less believable ways and express understandable feelings. No one dies.

Drawn from a French ballet by eminent librettist Felice Romani, the plot is as uncomplicated as it is engaging.

Amina, adopted daughter of a mill owner, is prone to sleepwalk. Somehow, no one ever recognizes her when she does so, leading the village to believe that a ghost haunts the place.

The day before Amina is to marry her boyfriend Elvino, Count Rodolfo arrives and decides to stay the night at the local inn, much to the delight of innkeeper Lisa (even though she's really crazy for Elvino).

The Count and Lisa, flirting in his room, are interrupted by something at the window. Make that someone - poor wandering Amina, on her nocturnal stroll. Lisa flees, believing the worst about Amina. Rodolfo recognizes snooze-walking when he sees it, stops himself from taking advantage of the dreamy young lady and lets her sleep it off in his bed.

Before you can say somnambulism, the whole village thinks Amina's a tramp. Elvino calls off the wedding and agrees to marry Lisa, then calls off that wedding after discovering that Lisa had been in the Count's room, too. Conveniently, Amina suddenly appears for her snooze-walk, this time along a rickety bridge. One false step and she's a goner.

But she survives and, on wakening, finds everybody proclaiming her innocence and Elvino back in a marrying mood.

Laugh if you want now, but try to guffaw your way through a sensitive performance of this opera. You won't get far. The spell of Bellini's elegant music - his belief in the characters and situations shines through at every turn - still exerts a powerful pull, as it did with audiences throughout the 19th century.

Although La Sonnambula fell out of favor at different periods thereafter, it continued to attract great vocal artists, such as legendary sopranos Luisa Tetrazzini and Amelia Galli-Curci. But, as with several other bel canto operas, it was Maria Callas, in the mid-1950s, who did the most to revive appreciation of the work. She instinctively understood that the title character is no mere songbird with a nocturnal quirk and tapped into the real woman behind the coloratura adornments.

"The role of Amina," librettist Romani wrote, "although at first sight seemingly easy to portray, is probably more difficult than many other roles considered more important. It calls for an actress who can be playful, ingenious and innocent and, at the same time, passionate, sensitive and affectionate ... Amina should show in every movement, in every glance, in ever sigh that elusive combination of the stylized and the realistic."

By brilliantly unlocking that combination, Callas helped restore La Sonnambula to its rightful place among bel canto gems. It continues to sparkle, an eloquent example of poetry in music, a marvelous opportunity for beautiful singing.

Baltimore Opera Company's production of Bellini's "La Sonnambula,' starring Valeria Esposito and Gregory Kunde, will be performed at 8:15 p.m. Saturday and Nov. 18, 7:30 p.m. Nov. 16 and 3 p.m. Nov. 20 at the Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave. For tickets, call 410-727-6000.

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