Vincenzo Bellini (1801-35) was born in Catania,Sicily and died before his 34th birthday outside of Paris. He was beautiful, delicate (Heine described him as a sigh in pumps), and could write melodies of unsurpassed beauty. Everyone loved his melodies – Wagner, Verdi (he said the melodies are long, long, long), and Chopin who was influenced beyond measure by Bellini.

On the short list of the most beautiful melody ever written is “Ah! Non credea mirarti” which occurs near the end of La Sonnambula. Chopin is said to have had it played for him on his deathbed. If the incident isn’t true, it should be.

Sigismond Thalberg (1812-71) was one of the greatest piano virtuosos of the 19th century. A contemporary of Franz Liszt, he was the Hungarian’s only rival at the keyboard. He was famous for his fantasies on Italian opera. All of these have been recorded by the outstanding Italian player, Francesco Nicolosi. He is president of the Sigismund Thalberg International Study Centre in Naples. Many other pianists play these  paraphrases, but none with Nicolosi’s combination of technical brilliance and poetry. A wonderful artist.

Fantasies or paraphrases of opera were very popular in the 19th century. With the advent of recordings in the 20th century these piano works were seen as unnecessary or even vulgar and fell out of favor. But now well into another century they seem, to me at least, valid and interesting.

Below are two versions of the aria. The first is sung by Maria Callas. Recorded in performance in 1965, the diva was well past her vocal prime. Nevertheless, she has the piece in her marrow and imparts to it all the longing and pathos inherent in Bellini’s masterpiece. Callas Ah non credea mirarti

Callas had the role in her repertory. Her appearance in the 1955 La Scala production under Leonard Bernstein’s direction was a huge success and can be listened to in it entirety here. Montserrat Caballé never performed the work onstage. To bad, vocally she would have been wonderful in the part. Caballe Ah non credea mirarti

The words are below. The heroine is sleepwalking while she sings like a goddess. A summary of the story is here. The Met is doing the opera this season. It will be broadcast on March 29, 2014. Diana Damrau will sing the title role.

Now for Thalberg; his picture is above. His piece on the opera is called Grand Caprice on La Sonnambula. It runs a little more than 16 minutes. Here is the section of the fantasy based on the aria. Thalberg Ah non credea mirarti. I suspect that Nicolosi’s playing is close to what you would have heard from Thalberg. From time to time, I’ll return to Thalberg. In addition to Bellini, he wrote works devoted to operas by Rossini, Donizetti, and Verdi. Nicolosi’s Bellini album is available from Naxos as are all his other recording of Thalberg’s fantasies.

Ah,non credea mirarti
si presto estinto, o fiore;
passasti al par d’amore,
che un giorno sol(o) duro.

Potria novel vigore
il pianto mio recarti
ma ravvivar l’amore
il pianto mio, ah no, non puo.

Ah, non giunge uman pensiero
al contento ond’io son piena:
a miei sensi io credo appena;
tu m’affida o mio tesor.

Ah, mi abbraccia, e sempre insieme
sempre uniti in una speme
della terra, in cui viviamo
ci formiamo un ciel d’amor.

Oh, I didn’t believe to see you
so quickly extinct, o flowers;
you have passed away like love
that one day only lasted.

Perhaps new life
my tears will bring to you
but to revive love
my tears, o no, cannot.

O, inconceivable human thought
a wave of contentment I am full:
In my feelings I can hardly believe
you assure me, o my treasure(darling).

O, embrace me, and always together,
always united in a single hope,
of the world, we live in
we will make a heaven of love.

Translation by Elise Curran (