Opera Daily 🎶 — "Ah! non credea" from La Sonnambula
"All of Italian opera can be heard in Bellini's "Ah! non credea."
“All of Italian opera can be heard in “Ah! non credea.”
Today we’re listening to…
“Ah! non credea mirarti”, Amina’s aria from Act 2 of the Italian opera La Sonnambula (The Sleepwalker) by Vincenzo Bellini.
In the early 19th century, scientists struggled to understand the phenomenon of sleepwalking (also known as somnambulism). It caused many operas, ballets, and plays to center on this theme, including Verdi’s Macbeth.
Set in a Swiss village in the early nineteenth century, La Sonnambula is the story of Amina whose habit of sleepwalking has scared the villagers, who believe there’s a phantom haunting their village, and risks destroying her relationship with her fiancé Elvino (she climbs into the wrong bed while sleepwalking!).
We are listening to Amina’s “sleepwalking aria”. As she walks (and pretends to sleep!), she sings of her love for Elvino. The villagers witness this—it so happens that she is sleepwalking on the roof of one of the village houses—and leads to her exoneration and the happy reinstatement of her engagement (after her honest mistake!).
🎧 Listen here (8 minute listen): Soprano Anna Moffo singing “Ah! non credea mirarti” from “La Bellissima”, Anna Moffo: The Debut Recordings, EMI Studio, 1956-1959
Ah, non credea mirarti
si presto estinto, o fiore!
Passasti al par d’amore,
che un giorno sol durò.
Ah, I didn’t believe I’d see you
Wither so quickly, oh blossom!
You have faded away just like love,
Which only lasted a day.
Ah, non giunge uman pensiero
al contento ond’io son piena:
a miei sensi io credo appena;
tu m’affida, o mio tesor!
Ah, human thought can’t manage
(To grasp) the depth of my happiness:
I can barely believe my own senses;
You do trust me, oh my darling!
As Renée Fleming mentions in this masterclass with Korean soprano Hyesang Park (where she workshops this aria), the bel canto repertoire is about artistry—it’s what you do with those notes and what you bring to it. Bel canto is a style or way of singing in opera from the mid-18th to early 19th centuries, although it can be traced back to opera’s birth in the 15th century. During this period, composers made it clear that the singer was to take over in any way they pleased.
Bel canto can be intoxicating and it often does this by putting the full spotlight on the voices. There is undoubtedly something formulaic about the music of Donizetti, Bellini, and Rossini, but it works. As you listen to “Ah! non credea mirarti”, you will notice that every run, or note even, is inspired by an emotion the singer is trying to express.
The opera was composed for soprano Giuditta Pasta and tenor Giovanni Battista Rubini, two of the most prominent of the 19th century. It was revived in the 20th century by Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland.
Here are some other interpretations of the piece:
Maria Callas (King's Theatre, Edinburgh, 1957)
Joan Sutherland (New York's Avery Fisher Hall, 1979—it’s fast but exciting )
Pretty Yende (Weill Recital Hall, 2014)
Cecilia Bartoli (The Barcelona Concert, Palau de la Música Catalana, 2008)
Amelita Galli-Curci (Victor recording, 1917)
Ruth Ann Swenson (London Symphony Orchestra)
Maria Callas made her mark in the opera world with her mastery of the bel canto style. In 1957, Milan’s famous Teatro alla Scala (La Scala) mounted Bellini’s La Sonnambula at the Edinburgh Festival, with Callas as the star. It was so successful that an extra performance was added, but after it sold out, Callas caused a bit of a scandal—she refused to sing it and left town. The 23- year-old cover, Renata Scotto, had the task of going before the hostile audience, but she had great success that began her long career as one of the world’s leading sopranos.
"Ah! non credea mirarti" is a typical example of the bel canto aria structure (cavatina/cabaletta combination). The cavatina is a generally slow, contemplative aria, designed to show off the singer’s breath control, soft singing (piano) and long vocal line (legato). By contrast to the cavatina, the cabaletta is fast and energetic, designed to show off a singer’s virtuosity and decorative singing.
Gioachino Rossini, Gaetano Donizetti, and Vincenzo Bellini have been called the “three kings of bel canto”.
Bellini had little more than a month to compose La Sonnambula. He used material from his abandoned opera based on Victor Hugo's scandalous drama, Hernani. He began composing in January 1831, and the opera premiered in March 1831 to great success.
The phrase “Ah! non credea mirarti / Sì presto estinto, o fiore” ('“I did not believe you would fade so soon, oh flower”) from Amina’s final aria is inscribed on Bellini’s tomb.
Thank you for reading (and listening),
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If you missed any of the previous pieces from the past month, catch up here: