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la somnambule

31 march 2009

Wikipedia, my guide to all things, says of Vincenzo Bellini's 1831 opera La Sonnambula that it is from "an Italian libretto by Felice Romani, based on a ballet-pantomime by Eugène Scribe." Eugène Scribe was little more than a mere name to me, the father of the "well-made play." In my compulsive desire to read the sources of my favorite operas, I was determined to seek out the text of said "ballet-pantomime."

Come to find that Scribe's Somnambule is not a "ballet-pantomime," akin to our modern ballet. There is an intermediate source, a true ballet-pantomime by composer Ferdinand Herold. La Somnambule by Scribe was first staged in 1819 at the Théâtre du Vaudeville in Paris, and was billed there as a "comédie-vaudeville," akin to a 20th-century musical comedy: a light play containing plenty of songs, with a score apparently lifted from other "comédies-vaudevilles," or at least so incidental that the composer remained uncredited. (A certain "M.G. Delavigne," credited with collaborating on the play, may have been involved in writing some of the music.)

Next come to find, upon digging up and reading La Somnambule, that Scribe's play and Romani's libretto have almost nothing in common with each other. Like a game of Telephone, the transmission from Scribe to Bellini via Herold and Romani has replaced most of the original signal with noise. There is a single shared element between comedy and opera: a fabled ghost who walks at night turns out to be a young woman, engaged to be married to one man, sleepwalking into the bedroom of another. End of resemblance.

In the opera, young Amina sleepwalks into the bedroom (and indeed the bed) of a perfect stranger. (The Count really is perfect; he leaves her untouched and later vouches for her innocence.) Amina loves her fiancé, and is reunited with him at the end of the second act.

In Scribe's play, the ingenue Cécile is engaged to be married to Frédéric, but only because she is jealous of her lover Gustave, whom she's observed flirting with another young woman. Everything is set for Cécile's wedding to Frédéric when an unexpected friend of the groom's arrives to be the best man: Gustave, rescued by Frédéric from near-disaster when Gustave's imbecile postillion Baptiste almost runs Gustave's carriage off a cliff. (Frédéric shoots a horse from under Baptiste, but animal-lovers can be relieved: the "shooting" happens off-stage, and no horses are harmed in the production.)

Well, naturally Gustave and Cécile find the situation a little tense, seeing as how she's dumped him after thinking he dumped her. (Frédéric never even knew the others were an item.) Gustave and Baptiste are sent to sleep in the pavillon said to be haunted by the phantom. Sure enough, she comes walking, and so reveals to the sleepless Gustave that she still loves him. Frédéric turns out to be totally cool with the situation, and insists that his friends marry each other.

Unlike their Italian-opera avatars, the triangle in La Somnambule aren't deeply in love with one another. They are French, after all, and the male-bonding between Frédéric and Gustave appears to be the strongest side of the triangle. The best part in the show belongs to none of the three, but to the ditzy servant Baptiste. Faced with the prospect of bedding down along the phantom's favorite route, Baptiste sings:

Oui, la bravoure a mon estime;
Car je suis brave par penchant:
Mais je suis poltron par régime,
Afin de vivre longuement. (181)

[I have a high regard for bravery, because I tend to be brave; but I have trained myself to be a coward so that I can live longer.]
Even across an ocean, a language barrier, and 190 years, that little lyric can raise a smile.

Reviewing the Metropolitan Opera's new production of La Sonnambula for The New Yorker, Alex Ross says that the story "suited [Bellini] precisely because it provided a minimum of incident" (30 March 2009, 72). That is certainly true of Romani's libretto, but Scribe's original play is much more of a farce, where events, characters, assumptions, and motives are piled jackstraw-like until they are finally resolved by Frédéric's bonhomie. Romani (or his intermediary, Herold) appears to have taken the source play and made something less of it. So too director Mary Zimmerman, to Ross's scorn, has taken La Sonnambula and made even less of it, setting it in a rehearsal space and in rehearsal clothes. (One imagines that the Met saved a bit on costumes thereby: soprano Natalie Dessay admitted at the interval of the HD broadcast that she was wearing her own socks.) Out of such diminutions comes a thin but strong current of popular entertainment, from Scribe to Bellini to Dessay.

I cannot close this review without commending the printers at Firmin Didot Frères, who printed the edition of Scribe that I found in my university library and read La Somnambule in – and the binder, Sollot ("relieur à Dôle," in the Franche-Comté), who bound it. This is a well-made book, hardy, unyellowed, and limber after 164 years. It's attractive, if utilitarian, in its half-calf red covers and fully-sewn pages. If you are ever inclined to hurry along the death of the printed book at the hands of the Internet, think carefully about objects like this 1845 edition of Scribe. If my university pulls the plug on this website, my 2009 review of La Somnambule will vanish in a brief magnetic auto da fé. But this copy of Scribe will outlive me and you, and be readable in 2109 or 2219, provided my university doesn't get the bright idea that all we need is bytes and ends up pulping it. Didot and Sollot knew something about sustainable technology.

Scribe, Eugène. La Somnambule. 1819. In Œuvres Choisies, t.1. Paris: Firmin Didot, 1845. 161-196.