Sunday, March 1, 2009

Goethe and Bellini

My neighbor Jan (the one with the TV) had tickets for the dress rehearsal of Bellini's La Sonnambula, which opens at the Metropolitan Opera on March 2. In the main roles were Natalie Dessay as Amina and Juan Diego Flórez as Elvino. I had never heard Bellina's opera before and was also unfamiliar with the story. I arrived at Lincoln Center just in time to take my seat and was thus unable to read the program notes. Just as well. Each seat at the Met has (optional) digital subtitles, right below eye level, so I was able to follow the action to its thrilling and unexpected conclusion. In the end things are resolved, but I (without benefit of program notes) was really holding my breath.

Natalie Dessay, as I have heard from reports of opera lovers, is petite, under 5 feet, and one can well imagine that she could walk on air as pictured here.
Diego Flórez is the current tenor sensation, so I find myself quite fortunate in being able to see and hear these new stars.

The subject -- sleepwalking -- seems like a high Romantic one, something characteristic of E.T.A. Hoffmann or Ludwig Tieck, and indeed the opera is highly Romantic. Still, one can definitely imagine various characters in works by Goethe as sleepwalkers: Gretchen and Ottilie, for instance.

Though the opera was first performed in 1831, the year before Goethe's death, it contains prominent conventions from an earlier, popular poetic genre, namely, the pastoral. The main characters in Goethe's first surviving play, Die Laune des Verliebten, are named Amine and Eridon. (Goethe's letters from Leipzig, between 1767 and 1768, show his long struggle to bring this play to completion.) Moreover, the plot of Goethe's play revolves around the reestablishment of pastoral harmony, which has been disturbed by the unreasonable jealousy of Eridon. Eridon is so insanely jealous that he cannot bear to see Amine admired by other men. In the end, he is brought to his senses, and the village "Fest" takes place. In Bellini's opera, it is likewise the male character, Elvino, whose irrational jealousy threatens to destroy the idyllic happiness of the pair of lovers. The opera culminates in a wonderfully staged village wedding. The chorus at the Met, in appropriate Tyrolean dress, was excellent.

The curious similarities with Bellini's opera -- the names of the two lovers and the theme of jealousy that nearly wrecks their love -- are perhaps accidental, but it is of interest to note that Goethe's Singspiel Jery und Bätely, a "Swiss idyll," was very popular in France in the early 1820s, when various composers supplied music to French translations of Goethe's text. Bellini's La Sonnambula is set in a Swiss village, and the prolific French librettist Eugène Scribe, who was librettist for several of Bellini's operas, also wrote the most well known French version of Goethe's Jery und Bätely, entitled Le chalet (first performed in 1834). Jenny Lind, "the Swedish nightingale," whose favorite role was that of Amina in Bellini's opera, is pictured here in such a setting.

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