Sleepwalking is a disorder that combines sleep and wakefulness. It typically consists of simple repeated behaviors. More complex actions are rare and when reported are of dubious authenticity. It is this latter form of the disorder that finds its way into literature and opera. Episodes of somnambulism last from 30 seconds to 30 minutes. The afflicted subject’s eyes are open and he/she has no memory of the event.

It is the latter form of the disorder that is depicted in literature and opera. There are three examples of somnambulism that dwarf any of the others. I’ll get to them last. First a brief look at a few novels that have a sleepwalking episode.

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward by H.P. Lovecraft: The main character, Charles Dexter Ward, sleepwalks as he becomes increasingly focused on his ancestor’s occult practices. Set in 1928, the year after it was written the title character becomes obsessed with his distant ancestor, Joseph Curwen, an alleged wizard with unsavory habits.

In Dracula by Bram Stoker, Lucy Westenra sleepwalks while under the influence of Dracula. An epistolatory novel Dracula is a book everyone has heard of even if they haven’t read it. Under the vampire’s influence, Lucy becomes prone to sleepwalking and is drawn outside, where the count fatally drains her of blood.

In Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, Catherine Earnshaw sleepwalks after a feverish illness.

The Sleepwalker by Chris Bohjalian is a 2017 novel. A sleepwalking incident starts a tense mystery. Liana’s mother, Annalee Ahlberg, walks out of their house one night, never to return. There are no clues to her disappearance except for a piece of her clothing stuck in a tree by the river, and a long, documented history of sleepwalking. Narrated by her daughter, Liana, the search for Annalee and the investigation into her disappearance unearths the deep history and dark secrets of the missing—and those left behind.

Now for the big three. In Act 5 scene 1 of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Lady Macbeth walks in her sleep consumed with guilt over her role in the murder of King Duncan. This is the famous ‘Out, damned spot!’ ambulatory nightmare shown below. The entire scene can be read here.

Out, damned spot! out, I say!–One: two: why,
then, ’tis time to do’t.–Hell is murky!–Fie, my
lord, fie! a soldier, and afeard? What need we
fear who knows it, when none can call our power to
account?–Yet who would have thought the old man
to have had so much blood in him.

Ansley Braverman is Lady Macbeth in the video below.

In his setting of the play, Verdi rose to the Bard’s level with one of his most inspired creations. His depiction of the Sleepwalking Scene is something new in opera. Its structure is not an aria or a recitative, but rather a starkly original portrayal of a woman whose inner self has decomposed under the strain of a succession of evil deeds. The music amplifies the text in a way unique to opera, at least when the composer is a genius. The psychological insight into a deranged mind is uncanny. The Ukrainian soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska is Lady Macbeth in the audio.

Scene 2
Lady Macbeth e precedenti.Lady Macbeth enters with a lamp.
Un lume recasi in man?

La lampada che sempre
si tiene accanto al letto.

Oh, come gli occhi spalanca!

E pur non vede.
(Lady depone il lume e si frega le mani, facendo l’atto di cancellare qulche cosa)

Perché sfrega le man?

Lavarsi crede!

Una macchia è qui tuttora.
Via, ti dico, o maledetta!
Una, Due, gli è questa l’ora!
Tremi tu? non osi entrar?
Un guerrier così codardo?
Oh vergogna! orsù, t’affretta!
Chi poteva in quel vegiardo
Tanto sangue immaginar?

Che parlò?

Di Fiffe il Sire
Sposo e padre or or non era?
Che n’avvenne?
(Si guarda le mani)
E mai pulire queste mani
io non saprò?

Dama – MEDICO:
Oh terror!

Di sangue umano
Sa qui sempre. Arabia intera
Rimondar sì piccol mano
Co’ suoi balsami non può.


I panni indossa
Della notte. Or via, ti sbratta!
Banco è spento, e dalla fossa
Chi morì non surse ancor.

Questo ancor?

A letto, a letto.
Sfar non puoi la cosa fatta.
Batte alcuno! andiam, Macbetto,
Non t’accusi il tuo pallor.

Dama – MEDICO:
Ah, di lei pietà, Signor!
That lamp in her hand?

It is the lamp which she
keeps always beside her bed.

Oh, her eyes are wide open! GENTLEWOMAN:
Yet she cannot see. (Lady Macbeth puts down the lamp and rubs her hands as if washing something off)

Why is she rubbing her hands?

She thinks that she’s washing them.

There’s still a spot here.
Away, I tell you, curse you!
One, two, it is time!
Are you shaking? Don’t you dare go in?
A soldier and so cowardly?
Shame! Come on, hurry!
Who would have thought that there would be
so much blood in that old man?

What did she say?

The Thane of Fife was he not recently a husband and father?
What happened?
(looking at her hands)
Shall I never be able
to clean these hands?

Oh, horror!

There’s still
human blood here. The
of all Arabia could not clean
this little hand.

Is she moaning?

Put on your
nightgown. Come on, wash yourself!
Banquo is dead and no one
has ever come back from the grave.

This too?

To bed, to bed.
What’s done cannot be undone.
Someone is knocking! Come on, Macbeth,
do not let your pallor accuse you.

Oh, horror!
Lord, have mercy on her!

La Sonnambula (The Sleepwalker feminine) is an opera semiseria by Vincenzo Bellini. It was first performed in 1831 in Milan. It’s a pastoral story about a young woman, Amina, engaged to Elvino. Unknown to him she is a  somnambulist, a sleepwalker, who wanders into the bedroom of a Count where she falls into non-mobile sleep. Elvino finds her in this seemingly compromised condition and breaks off their engagement. Her innocence is regained when she is observed sleepwalking across a high, dangerously unstable mill bridge. In this state of altered consciousness she sings the aria Ah! non credea mirarti. The melody is so beautiful that it has been universally admired by Chopin, Verdi, Wagner, and everyone who hears it. Amina awakens safely and she is reunited with Elvino allowing a happy ending. The aria is sung by the great soprano Claudia Muzio (1889-1936). She had a richer voice than the soprano who typically sings the role onstage, its beauty and expressiveness fully realizes the emotional content enveloped by Bellini’s gorgeous tune. Muzio Ah! non credea mirarti

Timed to wake up and return to the humdrum of quotidian life.