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Vincenzo Bellini: Norma
17 Aug 2009

Bellini: Norma

"An all-American Norma," Roger Pines calls this release in his entertaining booklet essay.

Vincenzo Bellini: Norma

Beverly Sills; Shirley Verrett; Enrico di Giuseppe; Paul Plishka. John Alldis Choir. New Philharmonia Orchestra. James Levine, conducting.

Deutsche Grammophon 00289 477 8186 [2CDs]

$18.97  Click to buy

It might even seem to be the Metropolitan Opera Norma, with James Levine conducting and Beverly Sills, Shirley Verrett, and Paul Plishka singing (tenor Enrico Di Giuseppe, born in Philadelphia, was more of a New York City Opera performer who, like Sills, also made Met appearances). However, the orchestra is the New Philharmonia, with the John Alldis Choir, and the 1973 recording dates took place in the UK. Bellini’s masterpiece can be found, unsurprisingly, in recordings with more idiomatic conviction, but for Sills’s fans, the rewards here trump any other concerns.

Sills’s characterization of the Druid priestess remains consistent right from the amazing opening scene until she joins hands with her erstwhile Roman lover Pollione and strolls into the flames. This Norma is a woman first, feminine and vulnerable behind her rage at her betrayal by Pollione. Sills does not possess the tragic grandeur of Callas, or rival Caballé for tonal beauty, or contend with Sutherland’s opulent sound (though Sills certainly has the chops for the role’s more athletic passages). To someone such as your reviewer with more respect than admiration for Sills, her Norma begins to feel underdeveloped as the opera reaches its climax - the finale is not the knock-out it should be. For her fans, however, the response will probably be very different.

Shirley Verrett’s Adalgisa does prompt both awed respect and admiration. She simply sounds gorgeous, and that makes her a formidable rival both as performer and as character. Unfortunately, both women seem to have fallen for the weak Roman tea of Enrico Di Giuseppe. Initially his lighter tone makes a pleasant impression, but the voice refuses to grow into masculine authority, and that surely drains a lot of energy from the drama. It may be an unrewarding role, but think how much Caballé gains in the famous Orange video from having Jon Vickers opposite her. Plishka’s Oroveso is competent, not much more.

The opening Sinfonia gets an aggressive treatment from Levine, with pounding fortissimos. He seems to be bullying the score, so that the martial music becomes overbearing, while the more lyrical passages provide little respite. The sound balances the orchestra and voices fairly well, with the odd result that they seem to be separate aural locations, and thus unblended.

Apparently the many fans of the soprano have anxiously awaited this first release in the CD format. They’ll be pleased, and indeed, anyone just looking for a good Norma probably won’t be disappointed. Unless, that is, later on they hear the Callas, or Caballé, or Sutherland….

Chris Mullins

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