BELLINI Norma • Giovanni Antonini, cond; Cecilia Bartoli (Norma); Sumi Jo (Adalgisa); John Osborn (Pollione); Michele Pertusi (Oroveso); International C Vocalists; O La Scintilla • DECCA 4783517 (2 CDs: 143: 11 Text and Translation)
I can’t recall anyRead more previous recording of Norma exciting more controversy than this one. Not just positive or negative comments—those are always normal—but real controversy, a complaint that this simply is “not” Norma because it doesn’t match the expectations of the listener.
To begin with, there is Cecilia Bartoli and her continuing exploration of both unusual repertoire and newly revised editions of old repertoire. Following on the heels of her exceptional album of Maria Malibran specialties, Bartoli issued a new critical edition of Bellini’s La sonnambula (Decca 4781084) that met with disappointment from reviewers. I’ve heard that recording, and what made it disappointing were the exceptionally sluggish tempos of conductor Alessandro de Marchi and, even more so, the over-careful and over-studied reading that Bartoli gave to the score. Surprisingly, tenor Juan Diego Flórez, normally an interpretive cipher, was interpretively interesting in that recording, something he usually is not onstage at the Metropolitan Opera. But all in all, it was a stodgy performance that did not convince me of its rightness.
This recording of Norma is an entirely different animal, partly due to Bartoli’s greater dramatic commitment and partly due to the much more incisive conducting of Giovanni Antonini. Like the Sonnambula, it is played and sung at a slightly lower pitch (A=430) than we are used to today. Several arias, duets, and cabalettas are taken at a much faster clip than we are familiar with—if you like your Normas slower and more “profoundly dramatic,” this is certainly not a recording for you. The orchestral textures also sound quite different, clearer and more biting, partly due to the use of original instruments and partly due to smaller forces with clearer textures. And then there is the unusual pitching of the three primary roles. Norma is now a mezzo-soprano who only goes up to a B?, while Adalgisa and Pollione sing in a much higher tessitura than in previous performances and recordings. All of this is very interesting, but, as in the case of the Sonnambula, the points made would be merely academic if it were not such a good performance. The liner notes make it clear that there are several versions of Norma in Bellini’s own hand, but that most of this edition comes from the autograph score. Most, but not all: the famed “Casta diva” was composed in G, but the original Norma, Giuditta Pasta, found that key uncomfortable and brought it down a tone to F, which was the key of the first printed score. Even adjusting the ear to A=430, it is indeed sung in F here.
Several of the complaints I’ve read online point to the fact that neither Bartoli nor Sumi Jo have large enough voices to be heard in most modern opera houses. That is certainly true, but the point in regard to this recording is that it is irrelevant. We are not being asked to judge their performances in a theater, but rather on a recording, and here they are certainly much more than adequate. They are stunning. Moreover, one must ask the question whether or not they would be heard if the orchestration used matched the one on this performance; and then there is the fact that opera houses of the 1830s were, on the whole, much smaller and more intimate than the monstrosities we have today. Were this cast and orchestra to perform this edition of the opera in, say, Zurich, I’m sure they’d be able to be heard quite well.
Of the various principals, tenor John Osborn has the driest voice, but he lacks any real vocal defects and actually phrases exceptionally well. Even though I’ve enjoyed, in the past, the Polliones of Giovanni Breviario, Mario del Monaco, John Alexander, and Robleto Merolla, I have to admit that it is an unalloyed pleasure to hear Pollione’s act I aria and cabaletta actually sung rather than shouted out in a rather beefy fashion, which all other tenors are forced to do at the present pitch and volume levels required for this opera.
More to the point, with so many sections of the opera taken at much faster clips than we are used to (“Bello a me ritorna,” the Adalgisa-Pollione duet, and the first Adalgisa-Norma duet, among others), the music takes on an almost Gluck-like feeling to it. The last Norma-Pollione duet, and in fact much of the closing scene, are sung with a much greater softness and intimacy, which give a far more poignant feeling to the proceedings than the belt-‘em-out style one is generally used to. I am still convinced that Spontini’s La vestale, which preceded Norma by two decades, is a much finer opera based on a similar story, but since the only complete recording of that opera (and in the original language, French) features a highly defective cast who simply cannot hack the music (Sony Classical), we can only really judge it from the sonically defective 1954 La Scala performance with Maria Callas, Ebe Stignani et. al., whereas here we are presented with a sonically spectacular digital recording in which all the musical and dramatic points are quite telling. The only “conventional” Norma performance I’ve ever heard that matches this one in drama and intensity is the mid-1970s San Francisco Opera performance with Cristina Deutekom, Tatiana Troyanos, and Merolla, conducted by Felice.
Taken on its own merits, this recording of Norma is about as thrilling a performance as I’ve ever heard. I was particularly surprised to hear Sumi Jo interpret as she sang (and include such niceties as a perfect messa da voce), something I’ve never heard her do before. Yes, I would have preferred to hear Flórez as Pollione over Osborn, but the crazy and often hectic scheduling conflicts for star singers nowadays possibly precluded his participation in this project. I like what I heard, very much in fact, and so can easily recommend this as the best Norma studio recording in the stereo or digital era. I would not personally live without the Deutekom performance, and I also liked Maria Callas’s early mono recording, but for me this is how a Norma should sound (and bear in mind that Callas herself lacked the forceful volume of such previous Normas as Lilli Lehmann, Rosa Ponselle, Gina Cigna, or Zinka Milanov). Could it be performed like this in the opera house, with singers who have an equal flexibility but somewhat larger voices? Of course it could, and that is the point of the project, to restore to circulation a Norma that matches the composer’s intentions, not those of a dramatic soprano intent on blasting the rafters with her high Cs. Highly recommended.
FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
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.
Normaby Vincenzo Bellini Performer:
Sumi Jo (Soprano),
John Osborn (Tenor),
Reinaldo Macias (Tenor),
Liliana Nikiteanu (Soprano),
Michele Pertusi (Bass),
Cecilia Bartoli (Mezzo Soprano)
Orchestra La Scintilla,
International Chamber Vocalists
Period: Romantic Written: 1831; Italy
Average Customer Review: ( 2 Customer Reviews )
More than just another "go" at NormaSeptember 2, 2013By J. Tatnall (West Grove, PA)See All My Reviews"Through recordings both live and studio I have heard the great 20th century Normas: Cigna, Ponselle, Milanov, Callas, Sutherland, Sills, Caballe, Scotto. I have heard a few of these live in the theatre as well as Verrett, an extended mezzo. No two have been the same. Each artiste has brought her own individuality to the part, and sometimes the opera through research of various source materials. This is what keeps the art form alive. That Bartoli et al bring us a newly considered score is exciting. That their commitment is 100% is what assures the success of their endeavors. In no way does it diminish the accomplishments of previous great artistes in the opera. If you have room for only one Norma in your collection, this is a great choice. If you already have a few, this one can certainly join them and hold its own proudly."Report Abuse
Welcome but problematic NormaJune 21, 2013By David J C. (W. Milwaukee, WI)See All My Reviews"I love Bellini, especially Puritani and Sonnambula, but the opera Norma has puzzled me for nearly fifty years, and I could never quite bring myself to purchase a recording of it until now. This recording gives us a fresh hearing, and I hope it will lead to many new productions with period instruments and singers suited the style of the period. The new critical edition of the score, as performed by Antonini and La Scintilla, makes great musical and dramatic sense. For that reason alone, this recording is worth buying. Yet their are problems. Some of them are inherent in Bellini's score, and the cast doesn't quite get around them. First of all, Pollione must be the least simpatico of all major Italian romantic tenor roles. His music is fairly banal and there is little in the character or his music that suggests why Norma or Adalgisa should fall in love with this Roman proconsul skulking around the Sacred Grove. Osborn sings the role of this cardboard character well, but fails to bring to it the kind of vocal beauty that would have given some credibility to the character. Secondly, the opera is fairly static. Though the ensembles often contain thrilling music, for the most part people simply stand around talk to, or argue with, each other. Recitativi are critical to moving the plot forward, but they don't always work. The third problem is the role of Norma itself with its extraordinary vocal demands. Bartoli demonstrates that it really fits a mezzo with a high extension or a soprano with good low notes. However, in recent years, her singing has become increasingly mannered so that her technique gets in the way. Her vowels tend toward an odd back of the throat sound, and her articulation of the fast passages has become so breathy and staccato that the lyric line is often lost. Oddly, of all the members of the cast, she is the only one that I had to have the libretto in my hand to fully understand, though Italian is her native language. Also, her technique confines her to a narrow range of vocal colors which, though usually opulent, undermine her lieder-like approach to the text. She resorts instead to modulation of dynamics (often marvelously), but words get lost in recitativi when a mf suddly turns pianissimo and you don't know what she sang. Her performance does not quite add up to the sum of its parts. Sumi Jo surprised me as Adalgisa. I've always thought it was a lyric soprano role (Margherita Rinaldi sang it), and Jo sings it quite well. However, I think a lyric soprano with a darker sound (e.g. Luba Orgonasova) would have been a better balance on this recording. On the whole, this recording is good, but not the definitive Norma. Maybe there will never be one."Report Abuse