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Recordings

Decca 0289 478 3517 2
30 May 2013

Cecilia Bartoli as Norma

Few people who love opera in general and bel canto in particular have never heard the comment made by Lilli Lehmann, veteran of the inaugural Ring at Bayreuth in 1876, that singing all three of Wagner’s Brünnhildes—in Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung, respectively, all of which she sang to great acclaim—pales in comparison with singing the title rôle in Bellini’s Norma

Vincenzo Bellini: Norma

A review by Joseph Newsome

Decca 0289 478 3517 2 [2CDs]

$29.99  Click to buy

When Norma was presented at the Metropolitan Opera for the first time on 27 February 1890, it was Lilli Lehmann who donned the Druidess’s robes, remarkably alternating performances as Norma in the spring of 1890 with outings as Verdi’s Aida, Elisabeth in Wagner’s Tannhäuser, all three Brünnhildes, Wagner’s Isolde, the title rôle in Karl Goldmark’s Die Königin von Saba, Valentine in Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots, Beethoven’s Leonore, Donna Anna in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Rachel in Halévy’s La Juive, and Amelia in Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera!  Such versatility is astounding even for an artist as legendary as Lilli Lehmann, but it was admitted on the occasion of a revival of Norma in the autumn of 1891 by an unidentified critic writing in New York’s Times that Lehmann was ‘not heard at her best in music of the ornamental kind.’  Lehmann herself would likely have argued that an assessment of Norma as ‘music of the ornamental kind’ grossly misrepresents the opera, and she would have been right: cantilena prevails in Norma, and the moments of musical filigree are unfailingly put to dramatic use with a surety lacking even in Bellini’s other mature masterworks.  Lilli Lehmann set the standard for MET Normas of subsequent generations, however, her successors in the rôle including Rosa Ponselle, Gina Cigna, and Zinka Milanov, all of whom were successful in the part on their own terms.  Maria Callas—whose MET début in 1956 was as Norma—and Dame Joan Sutherland redefined the rôle, combining the weight of voice of singers like Lehmann, Ponselle, and Milanov with flexibility in coloratura associated with lighter voices, but it was also with Sutherland’s second studio recording of Norma—also a DECCA set—that a concerted effort at returning Norma to something like what Bellini would have expected to hear began in earnest.  In the first performance of Norma in 1831, Norma and Adalgisa were sung by Giuditta Pasta and Giulia Grisi, sisters whose voices, judged by modern criteria, were both sopranos, and casting Montserrat Caballé—a celebrated Norma herself—opposite Sutherland’s Norma produced at least a reasonable facsimile of how Pasta, admired by her contemporaries for the richness of her timbre, and Grisi, described as a dramatic soprano but considering her creation of Elvira in Bellini’s I Puritani and Norina in Donizetti’s Don Pasquale perhaps lighter of timbre than the description suggests to 21st-Century observers, sounded in the opera’s first production.  Unlike her predecessors as Norma in the decades before the advent of Callas, Cecilia Bartoli—who, in addition to the present recording, has sung concert performances of Norma in Dortmund, which provided the impetus for this recording, along with a recent staged production at Salzburg’s Whitsun Festival (in which Mexican soprano Rebeca Olvera, who sang Adalgisa in the Dortmund concerts, reprised the part) that will be reprised at this summer’s Salzburger Festspiele—is a singer who emphatically is ‘heard at her best in music of the ornamental kind.’  Whether singing the music of forgotten composers of the High Baroque or the most popular operas of Rossini, Ms. Bartoli is a reliably engaging presence, the brilliance of her bravura technique allied with a seemingly boundless artistic curiosity.  Her previous performances and recording of Amina in Bellini’s La Sonnambula notwithstanding, the expansion of Ms. Bartoli’s musical ambitions to include Norma was surprising.  What she endeavors to capture in this recording is the spirit of Norma as it was when the opera was new, all of the music sung in Bellini’s original keys and each of the rôles sung in a manner as close to authenticity as modern scholarship and vocal techniques allow.  Ms. Bartoli as an artist shares with the character of Norma an indomitable spirit, but Norma is a score that cannot be conquered solely by commitment.

Employing an edition of the score by Maurizio Biondi and Riccardo Minasi that contains music that may be new to many listeners, conductor Giovanni Antonini—a recorder and Baroque traverse flute virtuoso and frequent collaborator with Ms. Bartoli—approaches Norma with the fresh ears of a Baroque specialist attuned to the intricate sonorities of period instruments.  However, there is nothing pedantic in Maestro Antonini’s pacing of this performance, which in general is splendidly energetic.  The excellent players of Orchestra La Scintilla play period instruments of the time of the first performance of Norma.  Rather than making Bellini’s music sound in any way antiquated, the slightly edgy tones of these period instruments lend the music a freshness that renders Bellini’s melodic inspiration breathtakingly apparent.  There is not a single melody in Norma that is not of exceptional beauty, and Maestro Antonini consistently chooses tempi that accentuate the eloquence with which Bellini’s melodic lines develop.  Perhaps unexpectedly considering his pedigree in Baroque music, Maestro Antonini displays an instinctive comprehension of using rubato as an expressive device, judiciously broadening the pace of certain passages to great interpretive effect.  Also surprising for a specialist in Baroque repertory, in which break-neck approaches are often adopted even when detrimental to the music or excessively challenging to the performers, Maestro Antonini is unafraid of slow tempi, taking a dramatically vital scene like the opera’s finale at a speed at which its full power can unfold without dragging.  Bellini was criticized during his lifetime for being a pedestrian orchestrator, but what he lacked in innovation he made up for with considerable imagination for creating orchestral timbres that ideally support his melodic lines.  Maestro Antonini’s attention to the details of instrumental blends produces revelatory results, the prominence given to brass instruments showing the cleverness with which Bellini wrote for these instruments and perhaps hinting at one inspiration for Wagner’s appreciation of Bellini’s music.  As in many bel canto scores, the chorus is important in Norma, dramatically essential as the vocal embodiment of the social order against which the character’s trials play out and serving as the musical foundation upon which Bellini’s walls of sound are built.  The International Chamber Vocalists combine the strength of a large opera house chorus with the impeccable tonal blend of a collegiate glee club, and their contributions to this performance are consistently delightful, roused by Maestro Antonini’s direction to startling outbursts when on bellicose form and hushed sighs when their confidence is shattered by Norma’s admission of guilt.  As many of the finest recorded performances of Norma are those that document staged performances in imperfect sound and with all the blemishes introduced by the presence of dozens of bodies on a stage, the quality of the musical setting provided for this performance by the Orchestra La Scintilla, the International Chamber Vocalists, and Maestro Antonini is perhaps the highest yet heard in the opera’s impressive history on records.

It has often been said that, for a performance of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly to be completely successful, it should sound as though the tenor singing Goro could easily step in to sing Pinkerton if circumstances required.  Similar sentiments might be applied to the rôles of Clotilde and Flavio in Norma.  As Clotilde’s contributions to Norma are so modest, it would be folly to suggest that a singer engaged for the part could reasonably be expected to substitute as either Norma or Adalgisa should her colleagues be indisposed, but it is hardly coincidental that one of Dame Joan Sutherland’s earliest assignments at Covent Garden was singing Clotilde to the Norma of Maria Callas.  Sung in this performance by Romanian mezzo-soprano Liliana Nikiteanu, who also sang Teresa in Ms. Bartoli’s recording of La Sonnambula, Clotilde achieves greater significance than she often enjoys.  With her fine voice and excellent diction, Ms. Nikiteanu interacts wonderfully with Ms. Bartoli, convincingly conveying Clotilde’s terror in the scene in which Norma contemplates slaying her sleeping children.  Flavio has the thankless task of being the sensible sidekick of a man distracted by passion.  The ringing tones of Cuban-American tenor Reinaldo Macias, a first-place winner in the Metropolitan Opera auditions, make Flavio’s arguments more noticeable than usual.  Even the cajolery of a Flavio as accomplished as Mr. Macias cannot prevail upon his indiscrete comrade, but Mr. Macias’s voice strongly complements that of his Pollione.

The rôle of Oroveso, Norma’s father, presents enigmatic challenges, and it is interesting to note the evolution of the rôle that has occurred since the third quarter of the 20th Century.  In the early days of Norma on records, some of the greatest basses in the Italian tradition could be heard as Oroveso: Ezio Pinza in the legendary 1937 MET broadcast, with Gina Cigna as his errant daughter; Tancredi Pasero in the opera’s first studio recording, which also features Cigna in the title rôle; Giulio Neri in the 1952 Naples performance with the largely-forgotten Maria Pedrini; Boris Christoff opposite Maria Callas in the famed 1953 Trieste performance; Nicola Rossi-Lemeni in the first Callas studio recording; and Cesare Siepi in the 1954 MET broadcast with Zinka Milanov, as well as the 1970 broadcast with Sutherland.  Aside from occasional performances by artists such as Boaldo Giaiotti, Paul Plishka, and Giorgio Tozzi, Oroveso largely has not lured the accomplished basses of the past forty years into the dramatic folds of Roman Gaul.  It cannot be denied that Oroveso gives a singer little around which to wrap his creative energy, so it is a special treat to hear Italian bass-baritone Michele Pertusi, one of the most accomplished singers of bel canto bass-baritone rôles in recent years, in the part.  Though he is perhaps more associated with comic parts in the operas of Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti, Mr. Pertusi has proved a tremendous asset in serious rôles, as well, his smooth, easily-produced voice and native Italian diction raising the levels of authenticity in many productions.  He brings both authority and a very welcome suggestion of youthfulness to his singing of Oroveso on this recording.  Norma being the mother of small children and, taking into account historical data on life expectancies and the like, therefore presumably a young woman herself, it stands to reason that Oroveso is not necessarily an elderly man: a bit of a dull stick he may well be, not least in his implacable adherence to social mores that condemn his daughter—his only child?—and orphan his grandchildren, but he need not be a tottering old man.  Mr. Pertusi’s Oroveso is lusty in advocating war with Rome and initially stoic but undone by Norma’s admission of her fraternization with a Roman, but there is audible softening of Oroveso’s heart as his daughter goes nobly to her death, entrusting her children to his care.  Mr. Pertusi’s tones are not as orotund as those of Pinza, Pasero, or Siepi, but he is convincing as a virile Archdruid without forcing or distorting his voice.  The opera’s opening number, ‘Ite sul colle, o Druidi’ and his ‘Ah! del Tebro a giogo indegno’ in Act Two are Oroveso’s only solo opportunities, and Mr. Pertusi seizes both impressively.  Mr. Pertusi is likely the member of the cast who is most adversely affected by the lowered diapason adopted for this recording [A = 430 Hz, which is likely a close approximation of authentic pitch from the time of Norma’s first performance as it is known that Verdi composed his operas with an assumed tuning of A = 432 Hz], the roughly quarter-tone deviation from standard modern concert pitch making his music slightly more demanding on the lower register than it would be in any of the world’s major opera houses.  Mr. Pertusi proves imperturbable, contributing an Oroveso that exemplifies his best work.

Possessing one of the most thrilling voices heard in bel canto repertory during the last decade, American tenor John Osborn joins the ranks of recorded Polliones that include Franco Corelli, Plácido Domingo, and Luciano Pavarotti.  In the context of this performance, it might be said that Mr. Osborn combines the best qualities of all three of these illustrious forbears.  There are in Mr. Osborn’s performance senses of the dash of Corelli, the musicality of Domingo, and the vocal freedom of Pavarotti.  Pollione is admittedly perhaps not a rôle that young tenors dream of singing: virtually without warm-up, he is required to sing a tuneful but rather pompous (as befits a Roman proconsul, presumably) aria and cabaletta.  Thereafter, he is the pseudo-antagonist first against Adalgisa, then against both Adalgisa and Norma, and finally against Norma, all before having a virtually deus ex machina change of heart and resolving to share Norma’s death by immolation.  Felice Romani’s libretto does little to explain why such a man, a professed enemy of their people, would have proved so irresistible to not one but two priestesses of the Druid caste.  Mr. Osborn’s singing ably fills in the gaps, allying swaggering masculinity with moments of tenderness.  Pollione’s opening aria (‘Meco all’atar di Venere’) and cabaletta (‘Me protegge, me difende’) are as chest-thumpingly martial as any music ever composed for the tenor voice, and Mr. Osborn brings to his performance ingratiating verve and rhythmic precision.  It was perhaps cruel of Bellini to ask his Pollione for a top C so soon after his entrance, though if other Bellini operas are considered the tenor singing Pollione should be happy that it is not a note higher still.  A particularly enjoyable aspect of Mr. Osborn’s singing is the ringing accuracy of his upper register, which is given quite a workout by the embellishments that Mr. Osborn ventures in the repeats in his aria and cabaletta.  Also wonderful is the soft singing that Mr. Osborn accomplishes in his scene with Adalgisa, in which he displays a lovely mezza voce that is not over-reliant on falsetto.  Mr. Osborn more than holds his own in the great trio that ends Act One, in which Pollione is often lost in the fray between Norma and Adalgisa.  Though Pollione’s most obvious opportunities for vocal display occur in Act One, upon each of which Mr. Osborn capitalizes handsomely, his finest singing arguably comes in Act Two.  For one thing, Mr. Osborn is the rare tenor whose technique fully encompasses the rippling coloratura passages given to Pollione in his duet with Norma, ‘In mia man alfin tu sei.’  In many performances, the tenor simplifies the coloratura or merely allows Norma to sing an altered version of his lines: Mr. Osborn needs no such bypasses, and he delivers the coloratura with the precision of a first-rate Rossini tenor.  In most performances, Pollione’s last-minute decision to share Norma’s fate seems artificial at best: few singers manage to convey the cathartic purification by self-sacrifice that Bellini and Romani intended.  Mr. Osborn’s singing in the final scene is as musically poised and responsive as Bellini could have hoped for, and his dramatic instincts shape Romani’s poetry with rare grace.  There is an audible sense in Mr. Osborn’s transition from full-throated splendor in Act One to honeyed eloquence in Act Two of the development of Pollione’s character.  No other singer on records makes this evolution as apparent or as natural as Mr. Osborn does in this performance, and no one sings Pollione’s music more capably, confidently, and stylishly.

Whether for reasons of artistry or marketability, there is ample precedent for replacing singers who participated in performances of a work with other singers when the work is taken into the studio for recording.  Rebeca Olvera, the Mexican soprano who sang Adalgisa in the Dortmund concert performances that inspired this recording, was an effective, plangent-toned Adalgisa, but there is no debating that Sumi Jo, a DECCA artist of long standing and a schoolfellow of Cecilia Bartoli, is a more commercially lucrative presence.  In this case, however, what may have been primarily a business decision yields a genuine artistic triumph.  Particularly after a century of encountering the voices of singers such as Ebe Stignani, Giulietta Simionato, Marilyn Horne, and Shirley Verrett as Adalgisa, casting a preeminent Königin der Nacht, Lucia, and Zerbinetta in the rôle may seem counterintuitive.  Ms. Jo is more celebrated for the flexibility and extensive range of her voice than for its power and amplitude, of course, but as suggested before there is musical evidence to suggest that Bellini’s first Adalgisa, Giulia Grisi, may also have been more of a lyric than a dramatic soprano.  Ms. Jo is at the point in the career of a lyric coloratura soprano at which the tightrope-walk excursions into the extreme upper register—the sopracuti that, for better or worse, define a coloratura soprano’s career—are achieved with slightly greater effort than previously.  If the Königin der Nacht’s top Fs are a bit more of a challenge for Ms. Jo now than they were a decade ago, there is absolutely nothing in Adalgisa’s music, high or low, that is not completely comfortable for her.  There are both obvious and implicit ambiguities in Adalgisa’s character, the most significant of which is her breaking of her sacred vows.  When she learns that her illicit love for Pollione not only violates her commitment to chastity but also betrays her devotion to her best friend and mentor, Norma, she is torn between her desire for her lover—for whose sake she seemingly has prepared herself to abandon all that she holds dear—and her duty to her community.  Romani leaves Adalgisa as one of the most notable ‘loose ends’ in opera: after her exquisite scene with Norma in Act Two (‘Mira, o Norma’), she simply disappears.  There are no stage directions to document her presence in the final scene, so her occasional appearance in staged productions to assume guardianship of Norma’s and Pollione’s children is an entirely spurious invention of directors.  Having played her part in precipitating the tragic dénouement, does she flee into self-imposed exile?  Does she confess her own guilt, either publicly or privately, and like Aida secretly share her friends’ demise?  Does she succeed Norma as High Priestess of Irminsul?  Does she renounce her vows, marry a nice Druid boy, and live happily ever after?  No singer can solve the riddle of Adalgisa’s future in the context of a recording, but Ms. Jo provides as complete a portrait of Adalgisa as has ever been offered on records.  The foremost quality of Ms. Jo’s performance is that, the pressure of extremely high tessitura relieved, the voice is indescribably beautiful; more beautiful, in fact, than it has ever sounded on records.  The middle octave of the voice is stronger than it was previously, suggesting that Ms. Jo has blossomed into a wonderfully full lyric maturity.  In Adalgisa’s first appearance, ‘Sgombra è la sacra selva,’ Ms. Jo’s voice is that of a very conflicted young woman, her heart troubled by its own machinations.  Ms. Jo’s command of the bel canto idiom has never been in doubt, but she has never sung with more facile grace, firm tone, and dramatic involvement than in this recording.  In the subsequent duet with Pollione, ‘Va crudele, al dio spietato,’ Ms. Jo sings broadly, phrasing her melodic lines with superb breath control, and making spell-binding use of her trademark subito piano, a skill for which she credits her studies with Carlo Bergonzi.  Adalgisa’s shame, confusion, and upheaval as she discovers the truth of both her own and Norma’s relationships with Pollione are expressed by Ms. Jo by careful shading of the tone and an idiomatic use of portamento that might have been thought to be extinct among today’s singers.  The trio gains dramatic impetus from Ms. Jo’s impassioned singing, the duality of her predicament still weighing heavily on Adalgisa’s mind.  It is in the scene including ‘Mira, o Norma, a’ tuoi ginocchi’ that Adalgisa faces her greatest musical and dramatic challenges, and Ms. Jo’s singing here is a marvel.  The spun-silk sound of her voice as she begins the duet sotto voce is incredibly beguiling: it is difficult to imagine any Norma failing to be moved by her pleas.  The blend of her voice with Norma’s as they sing in thirds is lovely, and the gossamer threads of tone that she weaves as she and Norma trade melodic lines are glowing but touched with melancholy.  Throughout the performance, ascents into the upper register hold no terrors for Ms. Jo, but—somewhat unexpectedly—she proves equally undaunted by plunges into very low territory.  Having lived and studied in Italy since her teens, Ms. Jo’s Italian diction has the naturalness of a native, and her use of vowel sounds as the foundation for placing the voice is an art unto itself, a glimpse into a long-forgotten method of bel canto singing.  Ms. Jo is an exceptional artist, but even for her this performance is something extremely special.

A Norma without a capable Norma is destined for failure, an inevitable lesson that many opera companies (and a few record labels) have learned the hard way, so to speak.  In terms of vocal precedence, Cecilia Bartoli is hardly the first mezzo-soprano to take on Norma: both Grace Bumbry and Shirley Verrett sang the part with variable degrees of success, but Ms. Bartoli is surely the first mezzo-soprano to approach Norma as both a musical exploration and a scholarly exercise.  It should be said at the start that Ms. Bartoli’s Norma is anything but a stunt, however, and the familiar drive with which she throws herself into all of her rôles is especially evident in this performance.  It is apparent from the first notes of her entrance recitative, ‘Sedizïose voci,’ that Ms. Bartoli is in excellent voice, and the ‘bite’ of her crisp diction provides fascinating verbal inflections that illuminate Norma’s inner struggles.  ‘Casta diva,’ perhaps the textbook example of bel canto cantilena at its most inspired, is unfortunately the least persuasive portion of Ms. Bartoli’s performance.  Honed on the quicksilver bravura of Rossini, Ms. Bartoli’s technique is challenged by the extended lines of ‘Casta diva’—those long, long, long melodies so admired by both Verdi and Wagner,—suggesting that she is more comfortable in the shorter phrases of coloratura passages than in the long music paragraphs of a Bellini cavatina.  The smokiness of Ms. Bartoli’s timbre also mitigates the effectiveness of the aria’s opening, but there is increased profile to her singing of the aria as the vocal line rises in tessitura.  Using Bellini’s autograph keys and a basically come scritto approach in terms of interpolated high notes at the ends of arias and ensembles, the aria has an alluringly lower ending, without the trill that has brought so many Normas to grief.  Ms. Bartoli rips into the text of ‘Fine al rito,’ and her cabaletta—‘Ah! bello a me ritorna’—delivers her into familiar territory, the cascades of coloratura voiced with confidence and control and only the chromatic scales lacking complete mastery.  Norma’s first duet with Adalgisa conjures from Ms. Bartoli refreshingly unforced, unhurried singing, but the subsequent trio finds her appropriately breathing fire.  She handles the ascents to top C in ‘Oh, non tremare, o perfido’—so feared by Callas and other Normas of lore—with aplomb, flinging the notes out like targeted daggers.  It is in ‘Vanne, sì, mi lascia, indegno’ that a few reservations start to creep in: though Ms. Bartoli’s intriguingly dark timbre suggests dramatic strength without manipulation, there are moments in Norma at which a mezzo-soprano’s relative lack of power in and around the soprano passaggio—where so much of Norma’s music dwells—lessens the cumulative impact of the performance.  There is no question of Ms. Bartoli possessing the notes, for that she does with greater reliability than many of her soprano colleagues past and present, but the basic timbre is weakest where Norma’s music demands that it be strongest.  She leads the trio to a rousing conclusion nonetheless.  Beginning with the opening scene in which she intends to murder her children, Act Two is for Norma a expansive dramatic arc from near-madness to ritualistic purification.  Musically and dramatically, Ms. Bartoli progresses with consummate artistry from the disturbed mother tempted by filicide to the loving friend reassured and reunited with her confidante in ‘Mira, o Norma.’  Her virtuosity is at its most infallible in the coloratura passages of ‘In mia man.’  If a singer’s performance of Norma can be defined by a single moment, it is that in which she sings ‘Son io,’ the words with which she reveals Norma’s guilt to her assembled countrymen.  Perhaps because of the difficult placement of the phrase within the voice (the issue of passaggio recurring here), Ms. Bartoli’s singing of this crucial phrase is rather plain, secure but lacking the mystery and ethereal sense of release brought to it by Callas.  From this point through the end of the opera, however, Ms. Bartoli reaches dizzying heights of musical expression, beginning with an account of ‘Qual cor tradisti’ that pulses with sublimated affection.  Ms. Bartoli’s singing of ‘Deh! Non volerli vittime’ confirms Bellini’s genius in ending Norma with beautifully extended cantilena—a sort of apotheosis—rather than a display piece for the heroine.  In the final minutes of the opera, all questions of the appropriateness of a mezzo-soprano voice and of Ms. Bartoli’s voice in particular for Norma are silenced by the stilled intensity of her singing.  This is not a performance without compromise, but Ms. Bartoli creates a Norma on her own terms that ultimately taps into the lifeblood of bel canto and lyric tragedy.

Unlike the rising and falling fortunes of many operas, Norma has remained a beloved work of which an unimpeachably well-sung performance has ever been a cause for celebration.  Such works often defy the best efforts at experimentation, but this performance of Norma is not so much a test of an hypothesis as a rediscovery.  In a sense, it is like the restoration of an unusually fine piece of antique furniture: years upon years of refinishing have preserved something magnificent, but stripping away the layers of good intentions reveals the original patina, a direct link to the artistry of the past.  Accumulated traditions have made Norma an exhilarating masterwork of lyric theatre, but this recording displays what a startlingly moving work this was from the moment at which the ink dried on Bellini’s manuscript.  Zealously, grippingly sung and played, this is a Norma of intimacy and intricacy, its adherence to perceptions of performance values at the time of the opera’s creation proving not its particular historical context but its indefatigable timelessness.

Joseph Newsome

[This review was first published at Voix des Arts. It is reprinted with the permission of the author.]

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