Not Your Parents’ Norma, But Norma Nevertheless

Review by: Robert Levine


Artistic Quality: 9

Sound Quality: 8

This recording and its stylistic and musical choices are a result of Cecilia Bartoli’s research into the scores and performance practices of the early 1830s. This performance employs a new critical edition by Maurizio Biondi and Riccardo Minasi using Bellini’s autograph score, as was presented at the opera’s premiere (the composer later made alterations). The work is played here on period instruments in Bellini’s original keys; pitch is A=430 (this is acknowledged to be a guess). Phrasing, tempos, and dynamics are said to be Bellini’s choices.

Norma is cast as a mezzo-soprano, as was, apparently, Giuditta Pasta (she was referred to as a “medium” soprano with an upper extension; the term “mezzo-soprano” did not exist at the time), who famously sang Tancredi, a contralto role, as well as Anna Bolena, which requires a dark, strong mid-voice. Adalgisa is a light soprano here, as was Giulia Grisi, who created the role (Elvira in Puritani and Norina in Don Pasquale were two of her other roles); Pollione is sung by a bel canto tenor, since Domenico Donzelli, who created the role, also sang many of Rossini’s operas (he wrote to Bellini that he sang in full voice only up to a G, after which he used a mixed/falsetto technique). In her studies, Bartoli discovered scores with ornaments from singers who were students of Pasta’s and has created her own based on that information.

Much of this flies in the face of what we have become familiar with. The opera’s title role became the property of either spinto sopranos (Milanov, Ponselle, et al) or grand-voiced dramatic coloraturas (Callas, Sutherland, Caballé, Gencer, Cerquetti, and heaven help us and her, Elena Souliotis, to name a few). Some smaller-voiced sopranos have taken the role—Sills, Gruberova, and Scotto come to mind—but they were still clearly bright-voiced sopranos and their Adalgisas were invariably darker-toned. If you think about it, this makes little sense: Norma is an emotionally-wrought mother and high priestess who must, in addition to everything else, declare war; Adalgisa is young and innocent.

The ne plus ultra of Normas for my generation, the generation prior and since, undoubtedly has been Maria Callas, who encompassed all of the role’s musical and dramatic possibilities. Sutherland excelled at the former but only glanced at the latter; Caballé occasionally came close to both, and so forth. But it was Tullio Serafin, conductor and Callas’ mentor, who approached the work in an almost verismo manner, with a trio of large-voiced singers, key alterations, and cuts; and except for the fact that sopranos with the combination of flexibility and size don’t grow on trees, there has been no real attempt to re-examine the opera.

To cut to the chase: it is remarkable that with the completion of the bel canto revival (abounding in tenors and basses who can handle near-impossible coloratura) and the arrival of historically informed performances, Norma has escaped scrutiny and revision for so long. (I suspect it is because Callas and Sutherland were both so ubiquitous and so stunning.) But here it is, and it must be heard on its own terms and not as antidote or blasphemy.

Tempos are swift, to be sure, but they only occasionally jar. “Sediziose voci” takes less than three minutes; Sutherland takes 3:45, and Callas invariably was slower than that. At first it seems rushed, but it is a moment of spontaneous agitation and anger and makes perfect sense, and its contrast with the “Casta diva” that follows, which is slower than both Callas and Sutherland, makes the latter all the more effective. It is sung entirely at a whisper, and its quality of prayer rarely has been as pronounced.

Norma’s and the Druids’ exit music is peculiarly fast: always an awkward moment on stage, here you might think they are off to the races. There is great tension in the recit before “Ah, rimembranza”, and again it seems a bit of a rush; but once more, it contrasts well with what follows. “In mia man” is not lingered over either, but it does not lose its power for being an outburst rather than a slow burn, and it perfectly depicts two people who are half crazed as a result of their impossible situation. Just to wrap this discussion up, if you hear the entire opera, the tempo relationships add up to a dramatic whole; excerpted, you are bound to think some “favorite moments” odd.

With regard to matters of style, get ready for plenty of embellishments, not only from Norma but from the others as well. Most are graceful and the epitome of bel canto; the second verse of “Casta diva” seems a bit busy. The high Cs in the two Norma/Adalgisa duets are not held—they are hit dead center and cascaded off. (You will recognize this practice in the arias for the Count in Rossini’s Le Comte Ory and Arnold in Guillaume Tell: they are treated not necessarily as climaxes but as part of the fabric.) Dynamics are scrupulously observed by all, including the chorus. Listen to “Non parti?” at the start of Act 2 Scene 4; it is marked “con mistero”, and that is how it is sung here. (It’s normally a truly dull, “when is Norma coming back?” moment.) Their “Guerra, Guerra” is maniacally warlike; the major-key, pianissimo “ray of sunshine” coda, complete with an audible Norma singing along, is ravishing.

Despite using period instruments, the orchestra never sounds undernourished—try the intro to the Norma/Clotilde scene, which is more exciting, agitated, and grand than I’ve ever heard it before. And because the strings are less aggressive, you can hear orchestral textures rarely audible—the wooden transverse flute during “Casta diva” is gorgeous, and the brass throughout have a nice braying, rather than overwhelming, sound. Maestro Antonini and his Orchestra La Scintilla make for fascinating, exciting listening, using vibrato without trying to sound like Brahms. And just to return to the subject of tempo, from “Qual cor tradisti” to the opera’s end, Antonini leads very slowly, allowing for perfect shading from both priestess and proconsul, making the finale utterly heartrending.

Bartoli most assuredly is Bartoli, and if you are allergic to her in general, you will remain so. For most of the performance her coloratura avoids the tommy-gun approach she has been known to use (only for a moment in the “In mia man” duet does she pull a Deutekom and begin to yodel). You can practically see her, the letter “r” has a life of its own, there’s a bit too much breath in non-legato pianissimos. But she is unique, and in the end, a very moving Norma. The scene with her sleeping children is chilling—not on the Callas-horror level (the phrase “Son miei figli” coming from Callas is terrifying)—but she makes us feel her confusion and misery.

The long, slow passages are ravishing (perhaps greater than Caballé’s simply because they are integrated and do not draw attention to themselves) and imply an intimacy that makes us identify with Norma’s plight; her diction is impeccable. She occasionally stumbles in imposing moments because her voice is simply too small—shortly before she calls for war, for instance. I wouldn’t bet that her vibrato is anything like what audiences in the 1830s heard; it’s too prominent. But you will hear things in her performance that will illuminate aspects of the character as never before.

Sumi Jo, as we know, is a gorgeous singer, but one whose technical proficiency always has trumped her interpretive abilities. Here she has plenty to react to emotionally, and her slim tone, still lovely, does its best at expressing Adalgisa’s almost constant sense of unease; she’s stunning in her duets with Bartoli. John Osborn, a true lyric tenor, sounds properly young, has no fear of heights, and gains confidence as his aria and cabaletta progress. He does a remarkable job with Adalgisa, alternately seducing and browbeating her, and in his confrontations with Norma he sings with assurance and every dynamic shade imaginable, winding up a sympathetic character. It’s not your uncle’s macho Polllione, but I suspect it will eventually win you over as he realizes what he has done. Michele Pertusi’s Oroveso is the most orthodox interpretation here; the voice is not a thunderous bass, but he knows how to thunder nonetheless. The Flavio and Clotilde sing their texts meaningfully.

The recording is peculiar: Bartoli is miked too closely, and there is so much reverb following the voices that you sometimes feel the “recording” more than the music. Fight through it, however, and the music will captivate. Many in the Blogouniverse are treating this undertaking as a sin against Bellini, whereas what they mean is that it’s a sin against Callas, et al. Nonsense. While I suspect that this cast would not pack the wallop on stage that it does here, it is a pleasure to hear it stripped and clear.

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Callas/Serafin (Opera d'Oro); Caballé/Vickers (Opera d'Oro)

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